From the statehouse to the White House?
© Getty Images

This piece is the second installment in a four-part series examining Republican candidates for president. The first and third installments can be found here and here, respectively.

At this moment, of all the incumbent governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin seems to be the current favorite of GOP conservatives. Walker's claim to early fame and prominence is that he took on the unions and beat them.

Walker supporters repeatedly say he won three elections in the past four years. That includes an attempted recall election where opponents from around the country sought to dislodge him from his post even before his term was over. Then to make things even sweeter, he came back and won another term.

ADVERTISEMENT

This visceral animosity toward organized labor is what fuels Walker's fan base. He is also projecting a decidedly "regular guy" image. He wants to be thought as the un-Bush. Not wealthy; not from a famous family. He brags about wearing a $1 sweater that he bought from Kohl's department store. More than anything, he is the un-preppy, un-country club Republican. He doesn't mention it, but I believe he very well might think it is an asset not to be a college graduate. Sort of a Harry Truman, common man patina.

Walker has improved as a public speaker and wowed them at the January gathering of rabid right-wingers. But in the give and take with the national press or foreign policy issues and controversial cultural topics, he demonstrated a profound lack of depth and nuance. Nuance is not Walker's strength. And that is what attracts many conservative activists to him.

He is positioning himself as the No. 1 alternative to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R). One might make the comparison to the 1968 Republican contest between Richard Nixon and then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (N.Y.). Walker wants you to think he is Nixon, while Bush is Rockefeller. Or even better, 1980 Reagan vs. George H.W. Bush. He's definitely Reagan while Jeb Bush is still a Bush. In each case, you know who came out on top.

John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, is making a lot of noises about running. The best thing Kasich has going for him is where he is from: Ohio. He actually grew up in western Pennsylvania, the son of a mailman. He is of Hungarian, Czech and Croatian ancestry.

One cannot underestimate the importance of Ohio. You will see it and you will hear it over and over again. No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. It's just not a cute historic factoid; it's crucial to understanding the American electorate in presidential elections. Ohio is seventh in population, but it is No. 1 when both parties calculate how they are going to get to the magic 270 in the Electoral College. Just look at the Democratic Party and their candidates for president since 1960.

John Kennedy lost the state (He famously said, "Great crowds, no votes"). But after 1960, the pattern is very clear. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won Ohio and won the White House. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey lost Ohio and lost. In 1972, George McGovern lost Ohio and lost. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won Ohio (barely, by 11,000 votes) and barely won. But in 1980, Carter lost Ohio and lost.

Ronald Reagan won Ohio twice in 1980 and 1984. George H.W. Bush won Ohio in 1988, but lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton. Clinton won Ohio and was reelected in 1996. Al Gore lost Ohio to George W. Bush, as did John Kerry in 2004. And finally, Barack Obama won it twice, in 2008 and in 2012.

That's a pretty convincing argument that Ohio is America in miniature. Kasich will say if he runs, "see, I'm your guy. I can carry Ohio. I've done it not once, but twice." As governor, Kasich has tried to fashion himself as a "compassionate conservative." (You remember that term.) He has been for expanding Medicaid in his state and has talked frequently about how his party should not be viewed as attacking the poor and being unsympathetic to those who are having a hard time in life.

Kasich served in Congress for 18 years, representing the Columbus area. He was considered a fiscal expert while serving as chair of the House Budget Committee. There is part of his background which is not a plus: After leaving Congress, he was managing director for the investment banking division of Lehman Brothers. The demise of Lehman Brothers and its impact on the country will not be something Kasich will be eager to comment on.

Kasich has a quirky personality. He talks a mile a minute and is prone to go off on weird asides that make it very difficult to follow and comprehend. He is smart and affable. During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speech before the joint session of Congress, I saw Kasich working the room like a pro. Even going over to Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and giving him a bear hug. Kasich's pitch will be that he can work with Democrats and even win them over.

In addition, by style and background, he can appeal to working-class voters who aren't tied to either party. The overriding question is: Can he be nominated and can he run a nationwide primary and caucus campaign while simultaneously serving as a sitting governor?

The other three governors I'm going to have to give short shrift. They might have presidential aspirations, but I don't see any clear or plausible way they move from the statehouse to the White House.

On Feb. 6, I wrote about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. The headline still applies today: "Chris Christie is his own worst enemy." He will play up his tough talking ex-prosecutor style, but he is just too explosive a personality for rank and file Republicans to stomach or nominate.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana is extremely smart. At one point, his star was very bright. He is now not popular in his home state and I can't say it any other way: The people who are delegates at the Republican Convention in Cleveland in 2016 are not those who are going to nominate the son of Indian immigrants, even if he is a Rhodes Scholar. No one will say it aloud, but all you have to do is attend a Republican convention (I have been to five) and see that ethnic and racial diversity is minimal at best. Jindal might be mentioned as a possible vice presidential choice, but a presidential wave is not in the cards in 2016.

Finally, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana. This former radio talk-show host and congressman has a national profile, but it's attached to the toxic religious freedom law that his Republican legislature passed. Now both sides of the issue are upset with him. He can't win and this issue will follow him and overshadow any chance of his long-shot candidacy.

Pence is an attractive candidate who could have been taken seriously. He has already received a bunch of favorable write-ups, but that was before the recent controversy.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.