If Republican presidential candidate John Kasich sought to drive stakes into middle-class turf in Wisconsin at a town hall meeting Saturday in Janesville, he did so with a smaller hammer than competitors Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz during their stops here in the last week.
At The Armory in downtown Janesville on Saturday, there were no parking lot T-shirt hawkers, no political protests, and nobody got a shot of pepper spray to the face on a chilly, snow-flecked afternoon.
Rather than a rally fueled with high-flying rhetoric, pointed insult and retort, the Ohio Governor paced around four-square riser in the center of The Armory’s theater room and took questions from about 275 local residents seated around him, on topics ranging from the national debt to social security, Medicare, veterans unemployment and the cost of a college education.
At his most bombastic on Saturday, Kasich announced his playlist for campaign appearances now include the Justin Bieber song “Sorry.”
In fact, Kasich waited until his closing remarks at Saturday’s town hall before he tweaked the ear of the elephant in the room: Wisconsin’s April 5 open primary.
“A vote for me…Is a vote for me,” Kasich said.
Kasich didn’t mention Cruz and Trump by name Saturday, and he didn’t play on the fact that he is still considered an underdog by some analysts. Cruz and Trump continue to lead Kasich in the latest polls of likely Wisconsin Republican presidential primary voters. Trump and Cruz also lead the way in their share of delegates.
All three candidates have been pouring time and effort campaigning in Wisconsin during the last two weeks, sometimes holding two or three rallies a day here as the Tuesday vote approaches.
It’s the first of a half-dozen primaries over the next month at a time when a large share of Republican voters are still undecided, including as many as 13 percent in Wisconsin alone, according to a poll released Saturday out of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.
Trump, Cruz and Kasich all have made stops in Janesville, and they’re eyeing Wisconsin’s primary as a potential momentum changer as they pass through the midpoint of the primary season en route to the GOP convention in July.
Kasich’s stop in Janesville was the second of two town halls in Wisconsin on Saturday, the first was held in Racine. It drew about 300 people, Kasich campaign officials said.
Kasich took questions Saturday from about a half dozen people in the crowd, which skewed toward the 40- to 50-something middle-upper class.
He allowed most of the people he chose from the crowd to take as long as they wanted to frame their questions.
A local woman fed her 9-year-old grandson a question: How would Kasich shore up the national debt?
Kasich took the opportunity to mug with the boy for photos, and then launched into one of his responses, which he crafted from a template that he joked his campaign staff says can at times “meander.”
Kasich’s style was roundabout in some ways, as he wove stories of his youth with one-liner jokes, and sought to create a narrative of political experience and expertise.
In most responses, Kasich cited his time leading the Congressional budget committee in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the fiscal and conservative economic policies he says have helped buoy Ohio during his years as the state’s governor since he was elected in 2010.
In answering the boy’s question he pointed to a nearby digital sign that was programmed to keep up in real time with the national debt, which now sits at $19 trillion.
Kasich laid out a three-part plan of how he would cut the national debt, which he said includes tax cuts, easing up on business regulations, particularly for small business and startups, and balancing the federal budget.
The latter, Kasich acknowledged, is the most difficult to do. He said both Republicans and Democrats in Congress often fail in balancing spending because they’re “worried about their own (political) hides,” and “want to tell everyone yes.”
He said that he left Congress and the U.S. House Budget Committee at a time when the federal budget was projected to have a $5 trillion surplus.
Kasich took credit for work he says he did to trim spending, but he claimed that as soon as he left Congress, lawmakers, including members of his own party, frittered away the $5 trillion.
“Then I learned something,” Kasich said. “Democrats love to spend. Republicans love to spend, too. They just feel guilty about it when they do it.”
At his most animated Saturday, Cruz argued with an elderly man in the crowd who tried to paint a picture of the city of Youngstown, Ohio that was bleaker than Kasich liked.
Youngstown, an eastern Ohio city of 65,000 an hour outside of Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has been hit hard by the loss of industry in the last 50 years, and has seen precipitous drops in its population along with the decline of the steel industry.
The man told Kasich he thinks Youngstown is now a stagnant community.
Kasich, exasperated, waved his hand at the man and paced to the other side of the platform.
He then defended a resurgence he said Youngstown has seen in his time as governor and laid out his ideas on an “urban agenda.” It is a set of policies that he said Ohio government has used to try to redevelop cities’ from their urban cores, to diversify industries, and to help schools improve education and career training at the local level.
Kasich’s answer touched on issues people face here as Janesville continues a gradual move away from its past identity as an automaker town.
But Kasich never talked about Janesville specifically, and he never mentioned the former General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
Scott Clemence, a Johnson Creek resident said he appreciated that Kasich didn’t seize on the opportunity to to draw parallels to the town he was visiting.
“I was waiting for that to happen. It would have been typical for a politician to do that, to tie in a question about some other place by comparing whatever he said to Janesville. But he didn’t. He didn’t pander to it,” Clemence said. “That might really say something about him as a candidate.”