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Steve Kraske: In the 2016 presidential race, John Kasich deserves a look

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich answered a question while campaigning in New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate John Kasich answered a question while campaigning in New Hampshire. The Associated Press

Governors used to be hip — at least when it came to presidential politics.

They were the “it” candidates, hailing from chief executive positions that most resembled what they would face in the Oval Office.

They balanced budgets, set priorities, signed bills, negotiated with lawmakers, gave speeches and generally set the tone for their states. They were leaders.

From their ranks came lots of formidable presidential candidates: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Mike Dukakis, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Howard Dean and Mitt Romney.

In our neck of the woods, Sam Brownback made a brief run for the presidency in 2008, but at the time he was a U.S. senator. Some Republicans say one reason he ran for governor two years later was to get that vital chief executive experience for a future presidential run.

But so far this year, governors are kaput. Jeb Bush is hanging on by his toenails. So is Chris Christie. Bobby Jindal is long gone. Mike Huckabee dropped out Wednesday.

So what happened?

Well, maybe nothing. Maybe we’re living through a temporary lull where governors aren’t capturing the public imagination.

Or maybe something more profound is happening. Governors have long records. They make lots of decisions, which can be picked apart by well-paid opposition researchers. As we’ve seen, any governor can be made to look bad.

So we’ve seen the rise of candidates with slimmer backgrounds. Barack Obama took off for the top job after four years in the U.S. Senate, though he also served in the Illinois Senate. Mitt Romney served just one term as Massachusetts governor. Even then, his work on health care reform was used against him to devastating effect in 2012.

This year, of course, we have Donald Trump, who has never held elected office. Ted Cruz was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Marco Rubio came to the Senate in 2011 after a stint as speaker of the Florida House.

But a gubernatorial dark horse just might be lurking in the tall grass. John Kasich, the two-term governor of Ohio, may find it impossible to break through the Cruz-Trump-Rubio thicket. But talent eventually emerges, and Kasich may be about to step forward.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses, which he skipped, Kasich polled consistently in second place in New Hampshire. A top-three finish there could put place him into the acceptable alternative category should Trump, Cruz and Rubio get too ornery with one another.

Kasich is pragmatic, a problem solver. He got important experience as chair of the House Budget Committee during a nearly two decade stint in Washington. As governor, he has overseen an economic renaissance and won re-election in a landslide. He speaks of the need to protect the poor and mentally ill. He expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a move that turns off conservatives.

They also disagree with his call for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

But no question he has conservative credentials. He opposes same-sex marriage, fights to limit abortion rights and battles public employee unions.

He refuses to get down in the weeds.

“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.”

He has big-time experience and an earthy style. Is he a winner in 2016? It will take a Hail Mary of a pass, particularly as Rubio rises. But Kasich deserves to have his tires kicked.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske

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