John Kasich is betting that the race for the Republican presidential nomination will sort itself out in the coming month and that his campaign can survive.
In an interview with TIME Monday aboard his campaign bus, the Ohio Governor said he doubts he can overtake frontrunner Donald Trump in New Hampshire. But Kasich expects a strong showing in this state could help him become a bigger player in a race that, so far, has been overshadowed by Trump’s theatrics.
At times prickly and at others sanguine, Kasich bemoaned how the GOP race has been covered as entertainment and substance has been given short shrift. “People will settle down and start looking for someone who is a reformer and who has accomplished things. I believe that, at the end, they will want someone who can land the plane,” said Kasich, who is roughly tied for second place in New Hampshire in a cluster that includes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But what happens if voters can’t settle on a single pilot, leaving Trump to win by default? “I don’t know. I can’t get that far down the road. I can’t think about that. I think about today,” Kasich said.
Kasich seems to have come to terms with the campaign that is rewarding Trump and his bombastic events. Where months earlier he came out aggressively against Trump, he’s now trying to cast the billionaire as a sideshow entertainer. Politics, he insists, should be about helping people, not bloodsport. Service should matter more than ego, he insists.
He said candidates like Trump are fomenting voters’ frustrations for his own gain. “You can go into a room, a town hall with 150 people. You can make everyone angry and negative. Or you can walk in and acknowledge the challenges people have and then have a positive, happy and hopeful result,” Kasich said. He prefers the second choice.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation that took place aboard his campaign bus as it rumbled from Tilton to Plymouth, N.H.
TIME: How are you feeling about New Hampshire?
JOHN KASICH: Look, we’re doing really well. But we’re going to get pounded by a bunch of half-truths I’m sure. We’ll see if we can survive it. We’re doing great.
Three newspapers on Sunday came out in support of you.
It was disappointing. I wanted more. The polls are good, the endorsements are good, the ground game is good. I think our ground game up here is one of the best we’ve ever seen ever.
Why do you say that?
We’ve got so many volunteers. They’re working like crazy. Go down and look at it. Thousands. You have to see the metrics. We’ve always been good with the ground game. I don’t think you can combine with the people of New Hampshire with the people who are coming from around the country. There’s a level of intensity that’s very unusual.
What has this race taught you?
Nothing. It’s always been the same. I haven’t learned anything. What I’ve always done works.
And what is that?
Meet people. Tell the truth. Talk to them. Have fun. It’s really a combination. Look, I like people. I like myself. It’s just fine. It’s what I’ve always done. Nothing has changed. For a while, People were saying do this or do that. I’m just doing what I want to do.
So you’re not listening to (campaign adviser John) Weaver?
Weaver has never said anything other than be yourself. Other people have tried to tell me to do this or that. I listened to them for a while, but I’m very, very happy. We’ve raised the bar, you know, instead of being down in the mud, we’ve been talking about high-level stuff.
Look, we pulled up at the airport last night and 50 volunteers met us. It was like a scene out of a movie. They had a car shining a light on all the volunteers. They’re all earnest and they want to believe. A lot of them are idealistic. It doesn’t even matter so much what their idealism is, they want to be believe in truth and whatever their deep-seated beliefs are about how the world ought to be. You see them there and it’s very cool. It’s one that will be etched in my memory, probably forever. It was like a scene out of a movie. It was incredible.
What does a win in New Hampshire look like for you? What is your best-case scenario?
It would be all of the sudden the whole media would be talking about John Kasich.
What will that take?
I don’t know. You guys, I cannot figure you out. If you look at the debates, it’s about who insults who, or who makes the most radical statements. And if anyone says anything of substance, it really doesn’t matter. It’s hard for me to get heard because I’m not going to lower the bar. I think it will depend on how the media treats it.
What’s really amazing is that with very low poll numbers nationally, we have raised money all over the country. It’s really pretty remarkable. We’ve gutted it out. We still have money to raise but nobody would have thought that we would have done this. No one thought we would have used hard dollars to run a campaign ad. It’s a testament to the hard work people have put into getting folks to believe.
To your point about media…
Look, I’m pro-media. I was in the media. I’m just telling you that when I look at it, most debate coverage, it’s really about who insulted who.
So we’re talking about New York values?
New York Values? I don’t know. New York values are fine. They’re great. I see American values. I don’t really distinguish one set of values from another, or one group of people from another. I think everybody’s the same. They just speak funny in New York.
Then what are Ohio values?
They’re like everybody’s values. They’re common sense, really. They want to take care of their families. They want to be aware of their neighbors. It’s American values. Respect. We need to double down on them. We need to double down on caring about your neighbor. And we need to double down on respecting institutions, including the Office of the Presidency.
Look, I spend a lot of people all over the country. People are the same everywhere. They’re just the same. The fact that somebody might live in a state that tends to votes Democratic? So what? I won by 30 points (in his 2014 re-election campaign). I won 86 of the 88 counties (in Ohio). I don’t distinguish between one kind of person or another. That’s not spin, either. If I’m in New York, I don’t act any different than when I’m in Ohio.
Did you realize what a mess this campaign was going to be?
I assume that any campaign that I’m in is going to be a mess.
We keep shocking ourselves every day as more and more outrageous things are said. Could you have predicted what Mr. Trump has brought to this campaign?
I don’t think about it. These are the cards you’re dealt. You step up to the poker table and you have to play what you’re dealt. These things don’t hurt me. I know they’re out there. But I just put one foot in front of the other. Being endorsed by these newspapers up here, fantastic. That’s a validation of the type of campaign that we’ve run and the fact that people are serious. I’m optimistic, very optimistic about the future. At the end, things will settle down.
But the tone of this campaign is so negative. Voters seem to be looking for a gloom-and-doom candidate. How do you drive an optimistic message?
That’s what I’m doing. I’m second in New Hampshire. One state at a time, man. One town hall at a time.
What’s it going to take for Mr. Trump to fade?
I don’t know. It’s not my job.
For you to win, he has to go away.
People will settle down and start looking for someone who is a reformer and who has accomplished things. I believe that, at the end, they will want someone who can land the plane. If you don’t have anyone who can land the plane, who knows what will happen? I know how to land the plane.
Borrowing from your analogy, there are a couple skilled pilots in this field. What happens if no one pilot is picked and everyone’s fighting over who gets to land the plane?
I don’t know. I can’t get that far down the road. I can’t think about that. I think about today. That’s not the way I do politics. I take care of me. I take care of my behavior. I don’t really look around at other people’s behavior. As Weaver said to me, ‘Why don’t you just take care of you?’ I think that’s right. We don’t spend a lot of time on other people. I know there are lots of half-truths that will be thrown at me increasingly because we’re winning here. There’s not much that I can do about it.
What do we get wrong about you?
Nothing so far. Most things are good. Our positives are high, are negatives are low. I think the press describes me pretty well. Most experienced. Best resume. When they say is that it’s not a year for someone with a resume or experience, I don’t agree with them.
Because I’m in second place in New Hampshire. That’s why?
What will it take for you to get to first?
I may not get to first. I don’t know.
Are you OK with second place in New Hampshire?
I’m never OK with second. I’m not predicting where we finish. I’m not deviating from who I am and what I am. By staying true to things that we as a team believe in, we’re rising. If we were to run to the tape now without negative ads, we’d finish second, maybe better. They’re all half-truths.
But negative ads work.
Yeah. They work. But we’ll see if we can absorb them and continue to do well. I’m not going to change a single thing. I’m not going to lower the bar because life is short. I trust people. I don’t even have a negative thought.
Do you have more or less trust in people having seen a race with Mr. Trump leading?
No. I’m not obsessed with Donald Trump. It’s fine. It will all work out in the end.
I want to ask you about a game of golf you played with the President and Speaker Boehner. First off, who smoked more?
I don’t talk about that. It’s personal.
Boehner and the President. What was that like?
It was great. The President, the Vice President, the Speaker and I’m a mailman’s kid. It was wonderful. It was just four guys playing golf. It was nothing more than that.
You didn’t see the seeds of grand bargain?
When it was over, I said it was amazing that any of us were all in our positions. The Lord had put us here for a reason. That was when the President then invited Boehner down to the White House to start talking. Maybe that was part of the spark. Why he didn’t get the deal done, I can’t tell you. But I believe that contributed to the dialogue.
You’ve been in the room when deals happen…
I got so many things done when I was down there.
Why is that not being valued right now?
I compare it to something that you might think is a little odd. When I was a kid, we rode the school bus. And there would be something going on when people would say, Oh, oh. Joe’s going to fight Mark. We’d get off the bus and we’d get in a circle. They’d just start to look at each other and then they’d be separated. The fight would never happen.
It used to be that way in Washington. Now, there’s no grown-ups to break up the fight. There’s so much personal attacks, vitriol, chest-thumping. People get rewarded by that in their own districts. What happens is the vast majority of people never get heard. It’s really easy to spook politicians where they begin to believe that the people who are the loudest represent the majority.
People who just border on belligerent or they just get cheered by small groups of people with loud voices. Therefore, it gets to be personal from the standpoint of people attacking each other’s motives. That can be healed.
In my state, the ringleaders in the Legislature, who are thugs, bully their members to stay away from me. (Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols later said the Governor was specifically talking about former Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, a state legislator who led the opposition.) There was very little reaching out. I found out later that they were threatened that if they talked to me, they’d be shunned. It’s kind of sick. I’m amazed at politicians who don’t understand that the way in which you actually become a leader is to take on bullies and knuckleheads in either party.