Can an optimist win?

Is it really possible that John Kasich and his positive message can contend?

While the biggest headlines coming out of the New Hampshire primary were reserved — and deservedly so — for Sen. Bernie Sanders who trounced Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and Donald Trump who similarly ran away from his competitors in the GOP field, attention must be paid to the surprising success of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Prior to New Hampshire, Governor Kasich was largely an afterthought among the multitude of Republicans vying for the presidential nomination — stuck in single-digits, a so-so fundraiser and uninspiring public speaker relegated to the periphery of debates. His second place finish in the Granite State is a tribute not only to his tactical focus on New Hampshire and his willingness to court voters there personally and exhaustively but to the kinder, gentler tradition of Republican politics he represents.

Make no mistake, Mr. Kasich may be no firebrand, but he's also no party darling. He does not have the financial backing of a Jeb Bush nor the outsider credentials of a Trump nor the tea party-inspiring, take-no-prisoners rhetorical gifts of Sen. Ted Cruz. He's the governor of a swing state, a pragmatist who supported an expansion of Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, a choice that was exactly right for the health care needs of his "purple" state but was widely regarded as an abomination by the far-right of this party.

Whether Mr. Kasich's strong finish in New Hampshire is a one-time anomaly or a reshuffling of the field remains to be seen. Republicans travel next to South Carolina for the Feb. 20 primary, which is not expected to produce a strong showing for him. Indeed, he may have to wait all the way until Michigan in early March to be regarded as a serious contender again.

But clobbering opponents like Mr. Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio and all the others in the nation's first presidential primary has to mean something — a proof, perhaps, that Mr. Kasich can capture swing voters and those who don't identify with the religious right. And Democratic strategists can't be pleased by any possibility that Ohio's governor might be the party's eventual nominee — he's a political moderate who could scarcely be described as war-mongering, inexperienced, xenophobic or hot-headed.

Consider, for instance, Mr. Kasich's speech to supporters Tuesday night after the results came in. Did he attack his rivals? No. Did he tell his supporters in Concord to fight onward? No, not especially; he didn't even raise his voice. Instead, he spoke about what he'd learned about life from the 100-plus town hall meetings he'd conducted across the state.

"The people of New Hampshire have taught me a lesson, and from this day forward I'm going to spend my time going slower and listening," he said.

In a year not only of political "outsiders" but of divisiveness generally where the front-runners tend to hold the most extreme views, left or right, is it possible that a positive-sounding candidate who speaks more like Jefferson Smith than Willie Stark can capture the electorate's imagination? Surely, that makes Mr. Kasich the anti-Trump of 2016: The notion that "listening to others" is critically important doesn't seem exactly in fashion at the moment.

That might be expecting too much. It's also possible Mr. Kasich's sudden ascendancy will merely work to Mr. Trump's advantage by helping keep other, better-financed contenders at bay. Even after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina suspended their campaigns Tuesday, there are just so many ways the still-sizable field of Republican candidates can be sliced after Mr. Trump gets his 34.5 percent cut. Perhaps Mr. Kasich is finally getting his proverbial 15 minutes of fame, only to be forgotten after the so-called SEC primary on March 1 when 11 states (most of them southern) have their say.

Still, this is an election year when anything could happen, including Mr. Trump's unlikely, unconventional candidacy. That Republican voters might suddenly gravitate toward someone who doesn't seem so angry, doesn't speak in absolutes, offers a more hopeful view of America's future and isn't a master of the nasty put-down is hardly beyond the pale. "Tonight, the light overcame the darkness," is how Mr. Kasich described his positive campaign versus the rest of the field. Surely, someone like that deserves to be heard.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad