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Does Kasich herald the return of compassionate conservatism?

As much of the Republican faithful look for a 2016 presidential nominee not named Trump, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio is rising in the polls with a message that the previous GOP president peddled with success in the 2000 election.

Mr. Kasich, showing uncommon heart along with fealty to party economic principles, has not yet uttered the words "compassionate conservative," a mantra of George W. Bush's first presidential campaign. But the scrappy Ohioan and 18-year veteran of the House of Representatives has trotted out essentially the same formula for putting his party back in the Oval Office.

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Other candidates such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have been doubling down on their boilerplate conservative dogma, hoping it will get them through the approaching fight for national delegates in the earliest state caucus and primary contests.

Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the presumed early frontrunner until the Donald Trump phenomenon gripped the party, has conspicuously recited the true-believer litany to get his footing in the race. Seldom heard from him anymore is his stated willingness to lose in the primaries in order to win the general election.

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The meaning of that sentiment, which he expressed in an earlier phase of the campaign, was clear: He would take his chances during the competition for delegates to next summer's nominating convention by appealing not only to the party's right wing but also to moderate voters needed later to reach the presidency.

Mr. Bush delivered this message in his soft-spoken, benign manner. It is in sharp contrast to the cocky manner his brother George betrayed in the run-up to his invasion of Iraq in 2003 and in his premature contention that the mission was accomplished.

However, Jeb Bush stumbled early in his campaign by saying he would have chosen to invade Iraq in 2003. He has been trying to recover ever since, insisting he had misunderstood the questions about the invasion and that "I am my own man."

As Jeb labors to emphasize his conservative policies and record as a two-term Florida governor, along has come Mr. Kasich as a late entrant to the race. He expresses his own brand of compassionate conservatism with a more benign and personable manner, against his background as the son of a mailman and grandson of a coal miner.

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In the first televised debate, Mr. Kasich was asked why as governor he defended accepting Medicaid money for Ohio, contrary to the conservative gospel. He said he needed the funds "to treat the mentally ill, with 10,000 of them [sitting] in our prisons. It costs $22,500 a year to keep them in prison. I'd rather get them their medication so they could lead a decent life. ... The working poor, instead of having them come into the emergency rooms where it costs more where they're sicker and we end up paying (more), we brought a program in here to make sure people could get on their feet."

Mr. Kasich went on to talk about the need to "reach out to people who live in the shadows, the people who don't seem to ever think that they get a fair deal ... people in our minority community who ... feel as though they don't have a chance to move up."

This is a side of Mr. Kasich that was not seen or recognized in Congress, when he came off as a hard-edged budgetary hawk and Ronald Reagan lieutenant, and chairman of the House Budget Committee, often with a hot, combative temper.

But after 10 years in the business sector and now as a governor, Mr. Kasich seems to have rounded down his hardest edges and found a comfortable middle ground between firm conservative economic principles and pragmatic social policy, bringing more flexibility to his notion of Republicanism today.

With the 2016 GOP presidential field already overloaded with pursuers of harsh solutions, led by Mr. Trump, John Kasich seems already to have taken significant steps to separate himself from the pack.

His version of compassionate conservatism with a more friendly face warrants continued consideration from the party faithful, who hope to put one of their own, other than Donald Trump, in the presidency next year.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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