COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ideas fly from Gov. John Kasich like sparks from a flint. While explaining his prison reforms, he interrupts himself midsentence - his sentences, like some E.E. Cummings poems, are unpunctuated - to praise a Delaware church that buys prom dresses for low-income high school girls. His spirit would add spice and his policies would add substance to the Republican presidential contest.
But only if Jeb Bush fails to gain momentum commensurate with his fund-raising. In 1999, then-Rep. Kasich, chairman of the Budget Committee, tried to become the first person since Ohioan James Garfield to go directly from the House to the White House. Kasich's five-month campaign for the Republican presidential nomination encountered the steamroller of the Bush family's fund-raising, an experience he is reluctant to repeat against George W. Bush's brother.
Elected to Congress at 30 in 1982, he left in 2001, and reentered politics to seek Ohio's governorship in 2010, defeating an incumbent governor by 2 points. No Republican has won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and last year Kasich was reelected by 31 points, carrying 86 of 88 counties, including Cuyahoga (Cleveland). Events are pushing foreign policy to the center of presidential politics, which suits Kasich, 62, who spent 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee, meshing weaponry with strategy.
He is a fact that refutes a theory - the theory that professional wrestling and American politics share a lack of honest emotion. This caffeinated son of a mailman from McKees Rocks, Pa., lacks the filter that other politicians install in their skulls to protect them from saying whatever they are thinking at the moment.
In Congress, Kasich was the first iteration of Paul Ryan, mastering budget intricacies. He participated in the Clinton-era dramas that produced two government shutdowns (1995, 1996) and a balanced budget (1998).
As governor, he has cut taxes by $3 billion. Death is no longer a taxable event in Ohio, and under his proposed budget, small businesses would be untaxed until their income reaches $2 million. Because of his focus on economic growth, the building trades unions supported his reelection. State colleges and universities were reimbursed on a per-pupil basis, and now, he says, "do not get a dime" for a student who doesn't graduate.
Time spent with him and his colleagues is a bracing torrent of granular details about, among much else, criminal-justice reform. He favors fewer mandatory minimum sentences and has instituted prison policies that prepare inmates for reintegration into communities.
But it takes money to save money, meaning, he says, "recurring societal costs," such as the $23,000-per-year-per-inmate cost of recidivism.
So, Kasich angered Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature by disregarding it in order to accept Medicaid expansion. Without the money from this, he says, he could not find funding for the three cohorts about which he constantly speaks - "the mentally ill, the drug-addicted, and the working poor."
Kasich has committed another offense against the orthodoxy that is often stipulated by Republicans who have never run for any office or who represent safe districts. Like another Midwestern governor, Michigan's Rick Snyder, Kasich would consider a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, who might energize ailing cities such as Cleveland.
His fervent Christianity stems from 1987, when both of his parents were killed by a drunken driver. Today he has twin teenage daughters and a serenity that has mellowed him. Up to a point.
Undeterred by any unsettling echoes, he preaches compassionate conservatism. Compassion, however, is a passion, and the modulation of passions is one of the primary purposes of our political institutions. Kasich does not do modulation, and sometimes he suggests that opposition to him annoys God.
It is, however, exhilarating to hear a governor who knows that "if you want to change lives, you had better be working door to door." An unmarried mother who had a child at 16 and another at 18 told him she "doesn't think [her life] is hard." This comes from "living in a community where everyone is just like you." So, we "have to show them there's a whole other world." Jobs, he says, are the only way to change the culture of poverty.
His sometimes sandpapery personality actually might be a sign of authenticity that helps him connect with people who, he says, think "he understands my problems and he kind of gets me." There will be, he insists, other "twists and turns" in the path to the Republican nomination, and like a football player on the bench, "I'm suited up."