Kasich keeps it positive in final days before NH

Posted at 10:18 AM, Feb 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-04 10:18:49-05

DURHAM, N.H. (AP) -- John Kasich is betting big on positivity.

Unlike Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, who are turning their fire on Marco Rubio with a renewed sense of urgency, Kasich is refusing to go negative against his rivals, even bragging about how he asked the super PAC backing him not to run an ad hitting the Florida senator. Instead, a calm Kasich is pinning his White House hopes on the idea that voters want a candidate who says what he or she is for, not what others are against.

"You know why I'm happy and relaxed and having a ball?" Kasich told voters Tuesday morning in Newbury. "Because it's good to spread good."

A strong performance in New Hampshire's primary next Tuesday is critical for Kasich, who all but skipped Iowa's caucuses to continue grinding out town halls in New Hampshire.

Christie, meanwhile, calls Rubio a "boy in the bubble" and even after Rubio's third-place finish in Iowa insists that the contest in New Hampshire is now a race between the two. Bush says Rubio and Ted Cruz, the winner in Iowa, are "backbenchers" in the U.S. Senate and repeatedly ridicules Donald Trump, Iowa's No. 2, as a "blowhard."

On the whole, the campaign grew nastier Wednesday, with Trump and Cruz trading increasingly sharp barbs. Trump alleged that Cruz "stole" the Iowa caucuses, and Cruz claimed that Trump is "losing it." Christie pledged to "beat (Hillary Clinton's) rear end" if he has the chance to debate her.

But Kasich doesn't bite when given repeated chances by reporters and even some voters to draw contrasts with his rivals.

"I'm not here to attack other candidates today," Kasich told reporters Wednesday at a Bloomberg Politics breakfast. "I'm sorry, I'm just not doing it."

Asked specifically whether Rubio and other Republicans need to explain more about what they would do as president, Kasich responded, "Pass."

Kasich instead focuses on his time as governor of Ohio and as a member of the U.S. House, telling voters to look at what candidates have done rather than what they say they'll do.

His work to balance the federal budget in the 1990s and economic track record in Ohio sit at the center of his pitch, and he says voters can expect a whirlwind first 100 days of a Kasich presidency, during which he'll pursue regulatory, immigration and Social Security reform, among other things. But, he also tells them, he believes conservatism is about making sure society's most vulnerable members aren't left behind.

"(Politics) has to be about something real," he said in Portsmouth. "It has to be about lifting people. If it's not that, get out, go do something else."

The message seems to be resonating with voters who come out to see him.

"You hear all the negativity and people vilifying one another, even in their own party, and Gov. Kasich's been above the fray," said Dave Luchsinger, an independent voter from Greenland, New Hampshire.

Kasich occasionally weaves in subtle digs at his rivals' positions, but he never draws an overt contrast by using their names. Recently, he's taken to telling crowds that abolishing the IRS, a centerpiece of Cruz's campaign, is "never gonna happen," and he warns voters against electing someone who isn't "ready to roll" on Day One. To win his home state of Ohio, a critical general election battleground, Kasich says the GOP can't nominate someone without experience or someone who is a "divider."

The only time Kasich mentions other candidates is when he calls on them to join his positive-vibes-only approach. He says Bush and Christie should tell the super PACs backing them to take down negative television ads, several of which slam Kasich. Campaigns usually tiptoe around mentions of the outside groups backing them, which they are barred from coordinating with, but Kasich proudly tells voters that the group backing him decided not to air an anti-Rubio spot after his campaign spoke out against it.

Kasich hasn't always approached politics with such a sunny disposition. In the early days of his governorship, he called a police officer who pulled him over an "idiot." The statement came back to hurt him in a November 2011 faceoff against public employee unions over attempted collective bargaining restrictions.

Kasich later called losing that union fight a wake-up call, and political observers saw his politics soften after the defeat. He recounts a story of his wife, Karen, telling him he's the dad of Ohio and should act like it.

In New Hampshire, the friendlier tone is what he plans to project right up until the end.

"Look, we've got only five days to go," Kasich told reporters. "I'm not changing anything. No Hail Mary passes. No manic behavior. I'm just going to finish it."

Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.