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Mackinac Island — Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who served 18 years in Congress, said Saturday he won’t be popular with special interest groups if voters put him in the White House next year.

Speaking at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, Kasich emphasized his resume as a former chairman of the House Budget Committee in the 1990s, a private-sector investment banker and a two-term governor of Ohio.

“All those experiences allow me to know what to do down there,” Kasich told Michigan Republicans attending his lunchtime speech at the Grand Hotel. “If you go down to Washington, trying to figure it out, you’re dead. You can’t do it. They will stop you in your tracks.”

Kasich, who was an architect of a federal budget that balanced in the late 1990s, is trying to distinguish himself from a crowded 16-candidate Republican presidential field of governors, senators and outsiders.

“If you go to Washington and worry about focus groups and polls and popularity, you will fail,” Kasich said. “... When the special interests come, you listen to them. But they don’t call the tune.”

“You know who calls the tune for me? The people I grew up with in the McKees Rocks,” added Kasich, referring to his western Pennsylvania hometown where his father was a mailman and his grandfather was a coal miner. “The people who go door-to-door with me in my campaign, that’s who I answer to. That’s who’s in my mind’s eye. Not people who have power, money and influence.”

One of Kasich’s campaign themes is to shift the federal bureaucratic power back to the states and let them shape social welfare, education, environmental regulation and other programs.

“State and local communities should design these programs to reflect our values,” Kasich said.

Kasich emphasized that he’s not interested in building up state bureaucracies either. He talked about efforts he’s done to cut Ohio’s state budget and weed out “over lawyered, over bureaucratic” programs through his Common Sense Initiative, which he refers to as “CSI.”

More than 2,220 Republicans are attending the Michigan Republican Party’s 31st biennial leadership conference at the Grand Hotel this weekend.

Kasich was the third GOP presidential candidate to speak, following Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at a Saturday luncheon and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at a Friday night dinner. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina of California and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are scheduled to speak Saturday night.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker canceled a Saturday morning speech because his charter plane could not land on Mackinac Island during an early morning storm, according to the Michigan Republican Party.

On stage Saturday afternoon, Kasich portrayed himself as both a slasher of government waste, but a Republican who cares about the poor.

“I operate under a premise my mother gave me that, ‘Johnny, it’s a sin not to help people who need help (and) it is equally a sin to continue to help people who need to learn how to help themselves,’ ” Kasich said, garnering an applause in the Grand Hotel dining room.

Cathy Stone, of Cheboygan, said she thought Kasich showed a “much more human side” in person, than her impression from watching him on television.

“On TV, he can seem not lackluster but also not exciting,” said Stone, who favors both Kasich and Fiorina. “I like him a lot, but he didn’t stir people like so many of the others stir people.”

Ann Vrablic, of Coldwater, said Kasich impressed her with his litany of accomplishments, his “common sense” approach to legislating, and his pledge to build up the military.

Her husband, Don, added, “I liked what he’s done for balancing the budget – not only in Ohio but in Congress.”

Kasich began a day of campaigning on the island by speaking to a crowd of Oakland County Republicans Saturday morning about his plan to orchestrate an “enormous shift” of federal bureaucracies to the state level if elected president.

Oakland County GOP senators hosted Kasich at the clubhouse of the Grand Hotel’s golf course for a reception.

Kasich was introduced by state Sen. Jim Marleau, who Kasich used as a prop to explain his plan to shift control of Medicaid and other federally funded programs.

The second-term governor said giving states direct control over more federal programs will state Legislatures and governors accountable to voters for running them.

“You may not like all of the things they’re going to be doing in the Legislature, but you can get your arm right around this guy’s head,” Kasich said as he put Marleau in a playful headlock.

But the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has expressed a preference for the Republican nominee to be a governor, was decidedly cool to the idea of running Medicaid when Kasich broached the topic earlier this month in a visit to the Lansing area.

“I think that we need to be careful in any block grant approach” to Medicaid “to make sure it is funded sufficiently,” said Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We can’t put an undue burden on states.”

On the campaign trail, Kasich has vowed to visit all 50 state Capitols.

“If I become president, I’d like to spend a lot less time in Washington and a lot more time in the states,” Kasich said.

Just before noon Saturday, Kasich met privately with Snyder before Detroit News journalists sat down with the governor for an interview inside the Grand Hotel manager’s office.

Asked if Kasich was seeking his endorsement, Snyder replied: “I’m not going to comment on that.”

“I’m not endorsing at this point in time,” he added.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, endorsed Kasich on Saturday during a reception with supporters at Cawthorne’s Village Inn on Mackinac Island.

His trip marks the fifth time Kasich has campaigned in Michigan this year.

Kasich has staked out Michigan’s March 8 primary as a key battleground in his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination.

“If you don’t like me, that’s tough because I’m going to keep coming back,” Kasich told Oakland County Republicans.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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