BOW, N.H. (AP) — John Kasich isn't angry.
And he's betting his presidential aspirations that voters aren't, either — despite the sustained political strength of leading Republicans he says are taking the country "into the dark."
The second-term Ohio governor, trekking through New Hampshire, preferred not to go after his GOP rivals during an extended interview with The Associated Press. He didn't even want to attack the Democratic president he hopes to replace. No, this man is trying to win the presidency on his terms, which run counter to fundamental assumptions about the mood of voters.
"Contrary to what we hear, they're not angry, I don't think they're angry at all," Kasich says. "I think they're upset things are not going well for them. Their wages are stuck, a lot of things like that. But they really want to hear answers. And they want to be hopeful. Look, when people leave my town halls, a lot of them say, I'm hopeful again. Because these problems are not that hard. It's all political mumbo-jumbo that's screwing everything up."
More than anything, the tell-it-like-he-sees-it governor condemned the angry politics that have shaped the 2016 Republican primary election. This, during an AP Conversation, the latest in a series of interviews with the presidential candidates. Kasich spoke to the AP aboard his campaign bus in New Hampshire, the unofficial staging ground for his underdog candidacy.
He is far less than known than some of his Republican competitors nationwide, but in New Hampshire at least, Kasich appears to be surging.
In the year of the outsider, and as his competitors run from their political experience, Kasich embraces his 18 years in Congress and five years leading one of the nation's most important swing states. In tone, message and experience, he occupies a unique political space in the packed 2016 Republican primary.
"I'm in my own lane. You cannot put me in anybody else's lane," he said. "That's why we're rising."
Despite his outlook, the 63-year-old Republican is fighting to stand out among other candidates from the GOP's mainstream wing: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio. They are all looking up at Donald Trump, who has tapped into a deep sense of frustration with Iowa's leadoff caucuses less than two weeks away.
"I will gladly accept the mantle of anger," Trump declared in last week's Republican debate.
Says Kasich: "70 percent of the people (are) not for him," an approximation of polls that find him leading nonetheless.
For now, however, people who don't support Trump or conservative firebrand Ted Cruz are divided among those candidates, Kasich among them, who are working to appeal to the party's centrist wing. Like Kasich, Bush and Christie are trying to launch their campaigns with strong performances in New Hampshire, which typically rewards moderation over party ideology.
Kasich laughed in disbelief when asked whether he might drop out of the race before New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary. That's just what some party leaders would like, fearing there are too many candidates dividing the electorate and thereby allowing Trump and Cruz to grow stronger.
"I'm 19 days from New Hampshire, I'm in second place, and you're asking me if I'm thinking about getting out?" Kasich asked. "Are you kidding me?" He added: "When they ask me the most ridiculous thing I've ever been asked, I'm going to remember this moment."
Kasich said he's providing a style of leadership that's needed this election season.
"A leader doesn't lead people down some dark alley," Kasich said. "A leader says, 'Hey, look at the road ahead.' Lewis and Clark did not get to the Pacific by spending their time looking backwards, or talking about how hard it was. Lewis and Clark got to the Pacific because they had their eyes on the horizon. We didn't get to the moon by looking at bad things that happened. We got to the moon by looking at the future."
"That's who I am," he said. "And it's all part of a contagious movement to make people feel as though they're involved in something bigger than themselves."
Kasich has achieved strong approval ratings in Ohio, in part by often refusing to criticize rivals in either party. That doesn't mean he's satisfied with President Barack Obama's leadership — especially on the economy and executive actions on immigration and background checks for guns.
"I think it's appropriate to be really angry with some of the policies," he said. "I think the problem with executive orders is that the president just basically thumbed his nose at the legislature and said, 'I'll just do this myself.' Well, we don't elect kings, we elect presidents."
On the economy — Kasich's campaign focus — he calls the nation's economic growth under Obama "the weakest recovery we've had out of a serious recession since World War II."
Yet he suggests Republicans have gone too far in trying to tear down Obama.
"To disrespect the office of the president? I saw the Democrats do it to George Bush and it was ugly. I think in our country, we need to respect presidents, teachers, ministers, rabbis, our elders. I'm a big person who believes in respect. And when you begin to disrespect a person, when you begin to disrespect what they're doing, it just degrades it for everybody coming down the road and I don't like that."
It's an important message for the Republican Party's presidential nominee in Ohio, he said, noting that no Republican has claimed the presidency without carrying the state in the general election.
"You've got to be sort of a uniter," he said. "People have to be hopeful about you.
"If you come in there angry, you're not going to win. You probably wouldn't win New Hampshire if you came in angry, because people don't want that."
He said he's not sure yet whether all the GOP candidates have what it takes to carry Ohio in November. But he's planning to uphold the party loyalty pledge he signed last year promising to support the ultimate nominee regardless of who it is.
"When I make a pledge, I try to keep it," he said. "We'll see what happens. But since I'm going to be the nominee, I don't need to worry about that."
Despite the optimistic tone, Kasich's team hasn't always shied away from hardball.
The Ohio governor's campaign called Trump divisive and insulting, and described his plan to ban Muslims from the United States as "dangerous rhetoric" in online ads. The pro-Kasich super PAC has repeatedly attacked Trump as well.
"I have not seen any of our ads," Kasich said. "I don't run the media in my campaign." He said he's "happier being positive. If they run something like that, I don't get worked up about it."
He declined to comment directly on Trump or Cruz when pressed repeatedly, saying he wanted to avoid "going down that rabbit hole."
As he sees it, his New Hampshire meetings are anger-free zones.
"Why is there no anger when I'm there, can you explain that?" he asked. "It's because we are thinking something is there that isn't there, or we have people who lead them down the path into the dark. It's easy to get people feeling bad. It's easy to get ourselves in a bad mood and thinking that the glass is half empty than half full."
Recent polls find strong majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, but far fewer report feeling outright anger.
A CBS/New York Times poll in December found roughly a third of Americans were angry about how things were going in Washington. Among Republican primary voters, that number ticked up to 44 percent, while more than half of Trump supporters said they were angry at Washington.
But Kasich has "never had a better time in politics."
"I'm very proud of the campaign we've run," he said. "Win or lose, I'm moving on feeling that boy, we really did great. We really made a mark. And this is going to be something that's gonna be remembered up here."
AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington contributed to this report.
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