MANCHESTER, N.H. – As the campaigning stage in New Hampshire ends and the voting begins, Republican presidential candidate John Kasich thinks he could be the man to rise from the tumult of the frenetic Granite State race.
If the Ohio governor benefits from the race's upheaval here, it'll be due to a heavy investment in resources in the state -- and to his famously unscripted pitch to voters as he promises an unconventional Republican administration and an overhaul of what it means to be conservative.
While polls in New Hampshire have always been volatile, the race was jolted with further tumult after Marco Rubio was panned for repeating scripted lines at Saturday's debate. Over the last month, Kasich's poll numbers have tilted up in the state, with at least one public survey showing him running second.
Kasich won't say how he needs to place in Tuesday's primaries, but he maintains that he needs to be “a story” out of New Hampshire in order to continue beyond the nation's first primary.
Central to Kasich's pitch is his extemporaneous, emotional and sometimes rough-around-the-edges style.
“I'm having the time of my life because I am free. Do you know what it means to be free?” Kasich told the crowd at his 100th New Hampshire town hall in Bedford. “Even my campaign people can’t control me.”
In an era when voters have seemed to be looking for an outsider who channels their frustration, Kasich consistently brings up his time served in government.
Elected to the Ohio state senate at age 26, Kasich frequently tells his crowds about how he spent 18 years in Congress before taking a decade-long break and then serving as governor of Ohio.
But for someone who has worked in politics for decades -- and someone pundits label as part of the “establishment” side of the race -- Kasich’s quirky demeanor doesn't quite fit the mold of a traditional politician.
While other candidates stage grand introductions, Kasich often quietly shows up at his own town halls and sits in the audience or hangs out next to a wall while he waits to be introduced. He oscillates between soaring introspection about neighborly values and blunt assessments of the nation's realities.
“I wish you could know me, really know me,” Kasich told a crowd last week in Derry. “Because I fight for people who have never had anyone fight for them.”
It’s also not uncommon for Kasich to get sentimental on the campaign trail, telling a crowd at a recent town hall in Merrimack how he was overcome with emotion thinking of all the recent endorsements and support he’s received.
“I want to tell you all, a couple days ago I was in my room, and I thought about all of this and I cried,” Kasich confided to his audience.
Tom Rath, the former New Hampshire attorney general and one of Kasich’s top advisers in the state, thinks that Kasich’s demeanor can help him appear more genuine to voters.
“I spent 8 wonderful years with Mitt Romney, which was great, but everybody used the term with him, ‘inauthentic,’” Rath told NBC News. “There’s nothing inauthentic about John Kasich. He is at peace with himself in terms of who he is and what he does as anybody I’ve ever worked with.”
"We ought to reward authenticity"
During an interview with NBC on his bus in January, Kasich maintained that he doesn’t think the public “ought to be rewarding parroting something.”
“I think we ought to reward authenticity,” he said. “I think we want to know what is inside a person to help us determine whether they can be our leader or not. The fact that you can stand up, even in the 11th or 12th grade, and memorize some talk doesn't make them a good leader. Leaders are people who have the head and the heart to be able to communicate a message."
But Kasich’s off-the-cuff and playful speaking style doesn’t always go over well with voters. The day afterthe New England Patriots lost the AFC Championship to the Denver Broncos, he made a joke about how much Tom Brady gets paid, resulting in boos from his audience. In December, one woman told him she was "insulted" after he poked fun at a question asked by an audience member.
“I want you to know that every once in a while you can fall off the high wire. I work without a net,” Kasich said Monday about his speaking style. “But you know, I sort of script myself. I know pretty much what I want to say and how I want to say it. I don’t work with a teleprompter, I don’t work with prepared speeches most of the time. But I self-regulate myself."
Kasich has long staked the success of his campaign on New Hampshire, bringing with him a promise to vigorously shake up partisan barriers across the country and in Washington, D.C.
“If I get elected president, the Republican Party and the definition of conservatism is going to change,” Kasich told reporters after one of his recent town halls in Peterborough.
There is evidence that Kasich’s work to appeal to a wider patch of voters – and his endless New Hampshire campaign schedule – is starting to work here, and for him, it has to.
"If I get snuffed out in New Hampshire, ballgame over," he has said.
Kasich’s campaign has invested heavily in the state with both time and manpower, and he often likes to brag to the press that he thinks he “has the best ground game in New Hampshire.”
At the time of the primary, he employed 15 full time people at 5 offices across the state, though that’s still smaller than campaigns like Donald Trump's and Jeb Bush's. He has completed more stops in the state than any other candidate running, according to the candidate tracker from NECN. And the Super PAC supporting him, New Day For America, employs 20 full-time paid people in the state, including 17 staffers and three college coordinators at six offices the last few months.
While the rest of the presidential field spent the last several days before the Iowa caucuses campaigning in the Hawkeye State, Kasich had the nation’s first primary state of New Hampshire mostly to himself. He did not invest much in Iowa, and garnered just 2% of the vote, but his supporters in New Hampshire brush that aside.
“I don’t worry at all about Iowa impacting Kasich,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who has endorsed Kasich in the primary. “There is an audience of non-Tea Party, non-angry mainstream responsible Republicans… it’s possible that he could corner that section of the market and I’m feeling more and more bullish that he’s going to emerge as that second place finisher in New Hampshire.”
While Kasich routinely boasts about the polls that show him in second in the state, he won’t say that’s where he needs to finish to move forward.
He wants to get “to the level that my team is happy,” he said.
“I don't know exactly what that means, but we'll know on the 10th. We'll know it when we see it.”