John Kasich doesn't care if you agree with him.
In his first political appearance in New Hampshire in more than a decade, Ohio's scrappy Republican governor declared that real leaders shouldn't worry about polls.
"If you don't like it, I guess that's your problem and not mine, because I'm going to do it," the 62-year-old former congressman told dozens of New Hampshire voters and political dignitaries gathered at St. Anselm College on Tuesday.
The comment was specifically about programs that set aside state contracts for minority entrepreneurs, but Kasich's blunt style was evident throughout his New Hampshire appearance, a two-day swing designed to assess his political strength as he considers a 2016 Republican presidential bid.
While he is largely unknown here, his unique approach to politics could be attractive to New Hampshire voters, who value candidates with an independent streak. Kasich, a two-term governor in one of the nation's most important swing states, a former House Budget Committee chairman, Lehman Brothers executive and Fox TV host, is used to doing things his own way.
"I'm not here to distinguish myself from anybody else. You ever play golf? Play your game," he told reporters while touring Nashua Community College when asked about his White House ambitions. "I'm John Kasich. I'm an unorthodox politician because I'm an ordinary person in a big job. That's just the way it is. And I don't know what I'm going to do yet. You'll have to stay tuned."
Kasich in some ways represents another political era, when Democrats and Republicans worked more closely together at the national level. On Tuesday, he chastised those who "hoot and holler at" President Barack Obama or insult him at events.
"That's a disgrace for America," he said. "We're all Americans."
He sees himself as an advocate for the poor, defends Common Core education standards, supported Ohio's Medicaid expansion as part of the President Barack Obama's health care law, and won't rule out a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally as part of an immigration overhaul.
That puts him to the center compared with many conservative potential rivals, if roughly in line with potential Republican competitors like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on education, immigration and more.
He's also considered a fiscal conservative.
In the House, Kasich led efforts to balance the federal budget in 1997. After becoming governor in 2011, he closed an $8 billion budget hole by privatizing and merging agencies and reshaping expensive government programs such as Medicaid, schools and prisons and overhauling the tax code to deliver statewide income and small-business tax cuts. He championed a law that restricted public-sector unions' rights to collectively bargain, although Ohio voters later struck it down at the ballot box.
"I wasn't in it to be popular," he said of low poll numbers at the time. "I was in it to fix the state."
Kasich is little known in New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first presidential primary early next year. Some local GOP officials struggle to identify Kasich's home state when asked. Recent polling suggests that 7 in 10 New Hampshire voters don't have an opinion of him.
"I don't think people know who he is," said former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, who held an event for Bush earlier in the month. "But I think he's a credible person and a credible candidate."
Kasich briefly sought the 2000 presidential nomination when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerged as a force in Republican politics. Kasich remembers the challenge well.
"I was too young, too inexperienced," he said.
Regarding 2016, Kasich says, "All my options are on the table."
He would face formidable Republican opposition should he decide to run. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday became the first to launch a White House bid. Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have been recent New Hampshire visitors as well.
Kasich he had no interest in talking about any of his potential GOP competitors while in New Hampshire.
"You think I'm going to answer that question?" he responded to a reporter's question about the Bush family and later added, "I would not get in this if I did not think I could win."
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