Ohio Gov. John Kasich came across Thursday night as the seasoned politician he is while debating his fellow Republican White House hopefuls and tackling a range of divisive topics in his fight to remain relevant in the race for his party's presidential nomination. Much was at stake days ahead of next week's Super Tuesday contests, and Kasich seemed up to the task.
The Ohio governor managed to get in his opinions and positions without squabbling with front-runner Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, all of whom seemed to be engaged in a debate-long feisty dispute over a host of topics. The juxtaposition between Kasich and his rival candidates was apparent throughout the contest.
He took advantage of every opportunity to distinguish his stances from his rival candidates, including immigration, healthcare, national security, foreign affairs and the ongoing controversy surrounding Apple's dispute with the FBI over smartphone encryption.
Kasich primarily blamed President Barack Obama for the stalemate between the top tech company and the FBI. "Where’s the president been?," he asked rhetorically. "You don’t litigate this on the front page of the New York Times. The president of United States should have convened a meeting with Apple and our security services."
He continued: "This is a failure of his leadership to get this done. ... That’s why you want a governor. As an executive, you've got to solve problems instead of fighting on the front page of a newspaper."
On immigration, he made sure to separate himself from the stances embraced by businessman Donald Trump, who has said as president he would deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Kasich made clear that he doesn't support that approach. "Deporting is ludicrous," Kasich said. While not calling it amnesty, he said he favors "a guest worker program. I think it’s practical." Deporting would be a last resort, he said. First, "I'd make them pay a fine, some back taxes, maybe some community service." But, he said going back to the topic of deportation, "I don’t think its practical and I don’t think it reflects America."
Kasich: "At the end of the day let's be practical. Let's start solving problems in this country" pic.twitter.com/mEi0Pjsffw
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On healthcare, Kasich pointed to the system in Ohio as the model that he would fashion a national healthcare system were he to become president. "We’re running signigficant health reform in my state," he said. The current system, also known as Obamacare, is not "transparent" enough, he said.
“It’s easier to interpret the dead sea scrolls than to read a hospital bill,” Kasich said to a great round of applause.
When asked about the U.S. relationship with Israel, Kasich pointed to his many years in politics as a staunch backer of the Middle Eastern country. “I've been a supporter longer than anyone on this stage. I've been standing with the Israelis for a very long time,” he said.
But, Kasich said, there is too much uncertainty toward Israel from the U.S. “Our allies are not sure what to make of us and our enemies are moving because they are not sure what we will do,” he said.
Speaking of enemies, moderator and CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates what they would do about North Korea and whether they favor a regime change. Without directly answering the question, Kasich said more sanctions were needed and that South Korea needed to be armed with "ballistic missile technology." But China should do most of the heavy lifting, he said.
When Blitzer called Kasich out for being noncommittal, the Ohio governor sternly told the moderator the last thing he would do is telegraph what his move would be if he were president.
"I've been involved in national security for a long time – you don’t have to spell everything out," he said. But the Chinese, he maintained, "are the key to being able to settle the situation.”
Prodded further on whether he would go to war, Kasich relented, but only slightly. “It would depend on what the situation was, but if there was an opportunity to remove the leader of North Korea and create stability. ... I would love to see regime change in North Korea. We have to be firm and we've got to unite those people in that part of the world."
Kasich entered Thursday night's debate trailing significantly in national polling ahead of Super Tuesday, but what could perhaps be even more damning for his presidential campaign is his standing in the state that he governs. Rival White House hopeful and the primary season's Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, was besting Kasich in Ohio by 5 percentage points, 31 percent to 26 percent, the Hill reported.
Still, Kasich seemed unfazed by the recent poll and insisted that "I can win my home state," the Columbus Dispatch reported. "We're going to win Ohio, there's no question about it. ... The last thing I worry about is how we're going to do in Ohio," Kasich said Wednesday.
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Kasich's super PAC released an attack ad hours before the debate was set to start Thursday, targeting Rubio, the candidate behind whom the Republican establishment has been coalescing behind. Kasich says it is he, not Rubio, who should be getting the establishment support.
"Washington politicians and lobbyists are rushing to crown Marco Rubio," the ad from New Day for America says. "But, national polls show John Kasich is the one who beats Hillary Clinton by 11 points, not Marco Rubio."
Because of his low polling, Kasich has been encouraged by some to drop out of the race. To his critics, the Ohio governor has two words: "Chill out." He thinks if he drops out then it would be inevitable for Trump to win the nomination.
"If I get out, which I'm not going to do, Trump is absolutely going to be the nominee," Kasich said Wednesday, NBC News reported. "End of story. I'm telling ya, I'm going to stay in for a long time. I'm going all the way."