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Detroit

Ohio Gov. John Kasich says he's not ready to declare his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

But the Buckeye State governor sounds like he already has, a move that could potentially reshape a field so far weighted to first-term senators with limited experience and polarizing demeanors.

Kasich has a record — in Washington, on Wall Street and in Columbus. How many who want to succeed President Barack Obama in January 2017, Republican or Democrat, can credibly claim the same? Not many.

He served nine terms in the House of Representatives, and is now in his second term as Ohio's CEO. His state is a perennial political bellwether for the nation, a prize would-be presidents effectively must claim on their road to the White House.

He chaired the powerful House Budget Committee in the 1990s, and is credited with helping deliver the first balanced federal budget since the late 1960s. He helped reform welfare, and played a role in crafting legislation to streamline the military command structure.

As governor of Ohio, he turned an $8 billion deficit into a surplus; borrowed against the Ohio Turnpike to raise what is expected to be $1.5 billion in funding for infrastructure projects; defied the right wing of his party and extended health care to low-income residents.

A presidential contender he may not be. But Kasich is a leader with experience, a demonstrated record and a world view that confounds lazy political caricature, making him a potential threat that no doubt will need to be taken out, politically speaking.

Seldom does a proud Buckeye stand before the Detroit Economic Club, as Kasich did Monday, and garner three standing ovations. Seldom does a sitting governor skewer the prevailing political orthodoxy on both sides, and do it in a way that sounds more like pragmatic common sense than deliberate provocation playing to the red-meat crowd.

Seldom does a Republican explain how his faith informs a brand of conservative politics that can be used to "lift" the "widowed, the naked and the hungry," as he put it. Or concede that the private sector is not always sufficient for addressing the needs of the less fortunate. Or argue that giving people a chance should apply to everyone.

"Ohio is doing better, but economic growth is not an end in itself," Kasich told the Economic Club. "If you're a minority in our state, you've got a seat at the table. I'm doing my very best to make sure everyone in our state feels that they are included, feels that they have a stake."

There are all sorts of ways the industrial Midwest's Class of 2010 governors — Kasich, Michigan's Rick Snyder and Wisconsin's Scott Walker — are different. Yet they share two common traits: They're risk takers and problem solvers, not timid problem managers, in ways many of their fellow Republicans are not.

Kasich wielded the budget ax to get Ohio's books in line; leveraged the sacrosanct Turnpike in ways few other governors would dare; challenged the state's public sector unions, ultimately lost the reform fight and got re-elected by a wide margin anyway.

Walker's battles with labor in the birthplace of progressivism infuriated unions and sparked a failed recall effort. Still he won the endorsement of Wisconsin voters three times in five years.

Snyder reformed a broken state budget process and punitive business tax regime; laid a foundation for a financial restructuring of Detroit that culminated in a Chapter 9 bankruptcy completed in record time; signed legislation that made Michigan, the birthplace of the modern labor movement, a right-to-work state.

Oh, and all three got elected to second terms.

An improving national economy helped all three and their states, of course. But ascribing the "Ohio Comeback" Kasich touted Monday, or the Michigan version, to economic forces beyond the control of policy-making amounts to a peculiar form of self-delusion.

Neither Kasich nor Walker is in the race, officially, though they are likely to be. Snyder, privately talking with would-be donors, won't categorically rule it out, either. All three of them have records, each endorsed by their respective electorates.

The Republican creatures of Washington and the Democrats' presumed nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, may get most of the attention. Yet it's the Midwest backwaters where most of the work is getting done.

Voters are responding for one simple reason: problems are being solved instead of managed, rationalized or ignored. That ain't nothing.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.

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