How might a man who looks like a moderate from a purple state, compared to some Republicans running for president, win a party presidential primary in a Deep South red state like Alabama?
Well here is how Ohio Gov. John Kasich began that uphill task Sunday night and especially Monday morning during a visit to Birmingham to receive an unexpected endorsement from the state’s most popular Republican, Gov. Robert Bentley:
Kasich ate barbecue Sunday night at a restaurant with a legendary name, Dreamland Bar-B-Que, where he posed for a lot of cell phone pictures and shook a lot of hands.
On Monday he praised a long ago Alabama congressman and Auburn graduate, Bill Nichols, who mentored him when he came to the Congress. He gripped a football under his arm signed by Coach Nick Saban and praised the state with these words:
“I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m emotional about this day,” Kasich told a small gathering of supporters and mostly press at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. “There is just something special about Alabama beyond (football coach) Bear Bryant. It’s a great state and it represents so much of the history of the south in America and the values we have here are reflected in the values we have in the heartland in Ohio.”
Put all that together and then add the gift: Bentley’s surprising endorsement of Kasich for the GOP presidential nomination, the first governor to endorse him and more importantly the first Deep South governor to pick Kasich from a field of 17 White House candidates that includes nine southerners.
In endorsing Kasich, Bentley said regional loyalties really played no role in his decision. He said there are some other good candidates but none as qualified as Kasich who served in the Congress where he was the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. For the last four plus years he’s been Ohio governor.
But Bentley said Kasich’s résumé was not what convinced him to call Kasich recently and offer his support and his endorsement, something Bentley did not do for any candidate in the 2012 presidential race.
Looking around the rotunda of the hall of fame filled with plaques of famous athletes and champions, Bentley said Kasich has something in common with the men and women who earned spots in the hall of fame.
“Champions believe in something more than themselves. They believe in a cause,” said Bentley.
Bentley said that today America “needs a champion.”
“We need someone who believes in the promise of our great country,” Bentley said. “Someone who believes our country can be better and stronger and safer not only for those of us who maybe have a little bit more but those of us who in this country who need to be taken care of. …It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re the same race, it doesn’t matter if you’re the same economic status. We need a leader who cares about the people.”
Bentley said Kasich is such a leader.
Kasich hit the highlights of his years in the Congress and his time as Ohio governor. He said he was proud to have served in a Congress and as budget chairman at a time that saw political rivals come together to balance the budget, something that had not been done since man walked on the moon.
As governor, Kasich said he has helped guide Ohio from a budget deficit of $8 billion to a budget surplus of $2 billion. He said the state has created an economy that has added 350,000 private sector jobs.
But Kasich said economic growth is not an end to itself.
“When mom and dad do better, the kids can do better,” said Kasich. “When the state does better or a federal government does better it means no one is left in the shadows. Not the drug addicted. Not the mentally ill. Not the working poor. We want to give them the incentives to rise, and be working, but no longer to be poor.”
Kasich said Bentley’s endorsement sends a signal across the south.
“I’m headed from here to South Carolina and the first thing I’m going to tell them is guest what? I was just endorsed for president of the United States by the governor of Alabama. It makes a big difference.”
Kasich said Monday will not be his last trip to Alabama.
“I will be back here and as we continue to rise and do well you will understand how important this was, an integral part of our ability to do well in the southern states.”