COLDWATER, Ohio (AP) — John Kasich is waiting for his second cup of chili.
He's in the middle of another day on the campaign trail, but as he's way up in the polls, Ohio's Republican governor isn't about to pass up a second helping.
"Politics bore me," he said, reflecting on his unorthodox speech at Coldwater Machine Co. earlier in the day.
At an event designed to energize Republicans, Kasich told dozens of voters from the farmlands of western Ohio that they should respect President Barack Obama, even if they don't agree with him. He praised the "big role" government plays in helping those who can't help themselves.
And later, he defended the "flesh and blood" benefits provided to low-income people through the expansion of Medicaid, which came about as part of Obama's health care law.
Now, waiting for his lunch in a bowling alley, Kasich dismisses concerns expressed by aides that his remarks didn't have enough "red meat" for the conservative crowd, which was largely silent for his 28-minute address. He said he's less interested in political attacks than doing good things for Ohio.
"This is what they need to hear," he said. He later added, "I have a right to define what conservatism is."
In an era of carefully scripted politics, Kasich is a man who does things his own way. He appears to be succeeding. Polls suggest he has a large advantage over his Democratic challenger, a county executive named Ed Fitzgerald, and some outside groups and high-profile surrogates are bypassing Ohio in favor of states with more competitive races.
Kasich's strength, and his place as top elected official in one of the nation's most important swing states, is fueling renewed talk he may again seek the presidency more than a decade after his first flirtation with the White House.
"Let's lay our cards on the table here. He's got the governor's race sewn up. We're here to talk about the presidency," said Fred Hemmelgarn, a self-described loyal Republican and 15-year-veteran at Coldwater Machine Co.
Few would have guessed a year ago that Kasich would be in a decidedly stronger position than other Republican governors from the Midwest facing re-election this fall who also figure into the 2016 discussion: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
With Congress' popularity near an all-time low, many donors and top strategists expect a governor to emerge as the ultimate nominee. All eyes are on Republican heavyweights such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but the leaders from the Midwest are quietly weighing their options as well.
It's clear Kasich is paying close attention to his national profile.
He personally reached out to reporters in New York and Washington this week to dispute an Associated Press story that quoted him talking about the chances a Republican Congress would repeal Obama's health care law. Kasich later told the AP he was speaking specifically about a repeal of the law's Medicaid expansion and not of the entire Affordable Care Act — although the law's opponents in Washington don't usually draw that distinction.
The issue is critical for conservatives who hold outsize influence in presidential primaries, and Kasich told the AP and the others he wants the entire law repealed.
But health care controversies aside, Kasich's popularity in Ohio is driven by his economic focus.
Like much of the country, Ohio's economy has improved slowly since its unemployment rate peaked at 10.6 percent a year before Kasich took office. The state's unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent this August, better than the 6.1 percent national average. There are still fewer manufacturing jobs in Ohio than there were before the recession, but Kasich can boast that manufacturing employment has grown each year he's been in office.
He's also been away from Washington long enough to distance himself from his 18 years in Congress, where he served as chairman of the House Budget Committee before deciding not to seek reelection in 2001. If asked, he's happy to dismiss the place where he once plied his politics.
"In Washington, they're out to lunch," he said. "They have no clue."
Jobs are the foundation of his re-election campaign. A huge "Kasich Works" banner hung next to the American flag at the Coldwater rally, a theme also highlighted in his television ads. But in contrast to some of his Republican colleagues elsewhere, Kasich's policies and his message include some focus on the poor.
He successfully pushed to double a tax benefit designed to help low-income Ohioans who are working and earning enough to pay income taxes. He was one of the few GOP governors to support an expansion of Medicaid under Obama's health care law.
It's a record that angers some conservatives, but one that could have widespread appeal among the swing-state independents who ultimately decide presidential contests.
"He's a governor who's willing to lead. Frankly, we need somebody like that in D.C.," said Keith Faber, president of Ohio's state Senate.
Kasich is reluctant to talk about 2016. He wouldn't rule anything out when pressed, but said he hasn't had key conversations — with his wife, Karen Waldbillig Kasich, and close friends — that would be necessary before taking a step into the 2016 contest.
But Kasich opened up about his first presidential bid in 2000, when he was approaching the end of his congressional career. While it isn't widely known, Kasich said he devoted roughly three years to a presidential bid before backing out. It's not an experience he remembers fondly.
"It was just really hard. You're just go, go, go all the time. You're just dead tired," he says as his chili arrives at the Coldwater's Pla-More Lanes. "I don't know about 18-hour days. I think that's a stupid way to go about it. I think that being tired and worn out — what does that gain you?"
AP Ohio Statehouse Correspondent Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus contributed to this report.