Shribman: This is John Kasich’s moment
This is what a political surge looks like:
The men of the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on Railroad Avenue frantically unfold dozens of extra plastic chairs Wednesday morning, 30 minutes before the arrival of a presidential candidate who barely qualified for the 10-person Republican debate a week earlier. There’s a brisk business in bumper stickers for a contender who registered a mere 1 percent in the CBS News poll less than two weeks ago. Two former New Hampshire senators and a coveted Granite State political strategist circulate among the people who crowd into the hall to hear a White House aspirant who only a month ago had one-third of the support of Donald Trump.
This is John Kasich’s moment.
In New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, moments like these are no more remarkable than the bracing sound of the lifeguard’s whistle at Beaver Lake a mile from the veterans’ hall or the brilliant colors of autumn at the farm, only two miles away, where Robert Frost moved with his 300 chickens 115 years ago. Sen. Paul Simon had one of these moments in 1988, Sen. Bob Kerrey had one in 1992 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had one in 2012. None of them became president, or even finished above third in New Hampshire.
But now the Ohio governor, suddenly in double digits here and running third in the 17-candidate pack — only a point behind former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida in the Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce University poll released days ago — is having his, and his campaign staff knows that the goal for the next few weeks must be to transform an ephemeral moment into a formidable movement.
The raw materials of that effort filled the chairs in the hall, just off Broadway with its yarn shop, its music store and its breakfast-forever diners. In baseball caps and T-shirts, holding fat handbags and slender handbills, they filed in and signed on, the freshly minted crusaders-for-Kasich. One man, an elected official from a neighboring town, was in shorts that showed off the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto stitched into his black socks. He’s leaning toward Kasich, too.
To this crowd, Kasich delivered his unscripted, deeply personal performance, touching, as he did in his congressional and gubernatorial campaigns in Ohio, on his childhood in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh, and on the lessons he learned from the hard work of his father, who he said “carried mail on his back.” He married these biographical bursts with calls for deficit-reduction progress, entitlement fairness and foreign-policy toughness — a political cocktail swirled with a swizzle stick of political independence.
“The Republican Party is my vehicle and not my master,” Kasich said, which would be an unusual riposte for a GOP primary but for the fact that independents can vote here and very likely will hold the margin of victory in the Feb. 9 balloting. “I’m in politics to bring about improvement in society.”
This is a long campaign and moments like Kasich’s sometimes truly last only a moment.
The danger is that his rivals haven’t had their moment yet, and some of them will.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.