September 24, 2015 5:55 AM EDT

The late addition of a naval shipyard tour caught Ohio Governor John Kasich off guard in late September. His staff hoped he would use the stop to clean up a comment he made a week earlier, when he suggested he was unconcerned with the military-budget squeeze putting pressure on jobs in New Hampshire. But as he scanned the schedule in his Chevy Tahoe, he made clear a reversal was not in the cards. “They know this won’t change my mind, who I am–right?” he asked an aide sitting in the back, who nodded wearily.

And so instead of talking up New England defense jobs, Kasich emerged from an aging Los Angeles–class nuclear-attack submarine at a base almost shuttered under budget cuts to praise, of all things, workplace insecurity. “I actually think that the concern about base closings … makes everybody more efficient, keeps everybody on their toes,” he said.

Kasich didn’t stop there. When a reporter asked about the Granite State’s heroin crisis, he touted his own efforts to help addicts by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in Ohio. “We’ve sort of been ahead of the pack–sometimes way ahead of the pack,” he said of his embrace of Obamacare, the government program most hated by his own party.

It has been this way for weeks with Kasich, who calls the Republican Party “my vehicle, and not my master.” He has sent his aides to brief New Hampshire elected officials about why they should betray conservative orthodoxy and embrace more federal health spending. And a few days earlier, at a town hall at New England College, he could have been mistaken for a liberal, calling for people to take an interest in their neighbors’ lives. “We need to start sticking our noses into other people’s business and start rebuilding and restrengthening our communities,” he said.

Though his roots are in the party’s grassroots wing, Kasich has emerged as a candidate of the sensible center. While other Republicans are running against the government they hope to lead, the Ohio governor wraps himself in it. As rival candidates adjust their positions to pander to voters, Kasich finds faith in his record, matching the anger of his rivals with his own quirky brand of relentless optimism. Carly Fiorina may indict the “professional political class,” and Ted Cruz may barnstorm on “defeating the Washington cartel.” John Richard Kasich, 63, still brags: “I’ve been in the Establishment.”

The early results are promising. On the back of a $5 million super-PAC ad buy, the last man to join the presidential race is now ahead of better-known candidates like Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum in New Hampshire. It’s easy to see why the GOP’s political elite is taking notice. Many in former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s orbit believe Kasich’s insider appeal and high approval rating in Ohio make him a greater long-term threat than Donald Trump or Carly Fiorina.

Which is just the message Kasich is trying to spread. He spends his time at town halls talking about his nearly five years as governor, his 18 years in Congress, his chairmanship of the House Budget Committee and his eight years working for one of the most reviled Wall Street banks, Lehman Brothers. He won’t sign antitax pledges and acknowledges the Iran nuclear deal can’t simply be abrogated on his first day in office. While others send Instagrams from commercial flights, he proudly flies private and boasts of his golf games with Speaker of the House John Boehner, another Buckeye.

“I acknowledge their problems,” Kasich says of aggravated voters who are clamoring for an outsider, “but I think they want someone who knows how to land the plane at the end of the day. And I’ve landed a lot of planes, and the passengers in back are usually pretty happy.”

One of the more interesting descants in the 2016 Republican opera turns on disposition. Can the party that still regards the sunny Ronald Reagan as its idol mount and win a campaign that isn’t marked by Reaganesque optimism? Kasich leaves no doubt about where he falls. In early September, he caught a reporter’s question, asking if he was “angry enough to win the Republican nomination”–a nod to the Trump phenomenon. Kasich was outraged, all right, but it was the question’s premise that got his goat.

“I think you have to recognize people’s challenges and problems, but my goodness, we live in America,” he said. “We have a lot going for us.”

Stewing over it hours later, Kasich promised voters at a town hall he wouldn’t forget the question. “If it takes mean and angry, count me out,” he said. “If it takes determination, if it takes a degree of toughness, count me in.”

In a political environment in which President Obama’s religion is questioned and his actions are compared to Neville Chamberlain’s, Kasich has no time for pandering. “I just get a little tired of everybody running around moping about how terrible everything is,” he tells TIME.

That’s not to say Kasich is a particularly sunny guy. Inside the pragmatic shell is a firebrand who has always pushed the limits of what he can do. Allies and foes alike have long joked that his initials–JRK–are just a vowel away from capturing his personality. But aides to rival candidates say Kasich’s temperament will be an issue with voters on the campaign trail.

For his part, Kasich says he learned long ago that his hard-charging ways can turn off voters. “Tone matters,” Kasich says between spoonfuls of chocolate ice cream during an interview at a quaint Bedford, N.H., shop. His time as Ohio’s governor has helped temper his methods. “I spent most of my life trying to knock down the walls of the city. Now I’m running the city, so I don’t want to knock the walls down,” Kasich says. “But it doesn’t keep you from having the same desire and the same passion for change.”

He grew up in the small Pittsburgh-area mining town of McKees Rocks, where his father delivered the mail. Politics was always on his horizon. “When I was a kid, I used to like to go up into the courthouse and listen to lawyers argue,” Kasich told Republicans at a New Hampshire house party in late August. “Surprise! I became a politician, right?”

Kasich began making trouble in politics as a 26-year-old, the youngest elected member of the Ohio state senate. Four years later, he won election to Congress as a budget cutter, drawing the ire of his own party as he took on sacred cows in pursuit of a balanced budget. “There was no question he was very aggressive and at times didn’t listen very well,” recalls former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

He always went his own way. As Republicans sought to stop “Hillarycare” in 1993, Kasich welcomed her to his home for a swordfish dinner to discuss ways to reform health care. (Talks didn’t go much past dessert.) On the House Armed Services Committee, he targeted bloated programs like the B-2 bomber, starting a career-long icy relationship with then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and backed the creation of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission and a similar one for civilian properties. Aides like to say he was a Tea Party fiscal hawk before the Tea Party even existed.

In 1995, the year he balanced the budget for the first time and helped eliminate government entities like the Interstate Commerce Commission, TIME asked him to pose for a cover shoot with a chain saw slicing up the federal budget. Kasich demurred, concluding that it would look like a cheap stunt. (Twenty years later Rand Paul filmed the same stunt as a campaign ad.) Around the same time, he married his wife Karen, a former public relations executive, with whom he has two teenage daughters.

After making the short list to be Vice President with 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, Kasich set about launching a presidential bid of his own in 1999, only to be edged out by another Bush’s well-funded campaign. Kasich says now the message he received from voters in New Hampshire was to “come back when you have some more experience.”

As Ohio governor, he privatized the state’s economic-development arm and pushed through over $5 billion in tax cuts. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker provoked a national firestorm taking aim at his state’s public-sector unions, Kasich tried to one-up him by refusing to exempt police and fire unions. It went down in flames, dealing him a potentially existential blow as his poll numbers dropped to 36%. Tales of his short temper, snapping at rivals, reporters and even allies, leaked into the press.

The defeat led to a transformation in style if not in substance. Gingrich, who has spent time with his former colleague in recent months, notes he’s “matured–he’s much wiser about how he approaches people.” He now polls at 61% in Ohio, the highest of any governor in the 2016 field in their own state.

Kasich says that state-budget matters in Columbus delayed his entry into the race–but it is safe to say that he also wanted to see if Jeb Bush would capture the race by storm when he entered or, as it turned out, stumbled at the start. Now Kasich is focused heavily on New Hampshire, an approach that has worked before to mixed success. John McCain won the primary there twice, going on once to win the GOP nomination, and in 2012 former Utah governor Jon Huntsman camped there for months with a similar straight-talk message only to come in third in the primary. Those campaigns are instructive, as their architect, consultant John Weaver, has now become Kasich’s top strategist. He is betting that Kasich can outshine the rest of the Establishment candidates with candor.

“I think voters are looking for someone who tells it straight,” says Weaver, repeating his perennial line. “He has the same attributes and achievements as Bush, except that they’re more current, plus he brings Ohio and a better ability to bring crossover voters, because he doesn’t have the same last name or inherited baggage.”

Winning in New Hampshire, however, will not hand Kasich the nomination. The path beyond is challenging, first to South Carolina, where social conservatives make up a large and famously volatile bloc of voters. This season, those voters are far angrier than the conservative revolutionaries of the early 1990s. The bunching of other Deep South states on March 1 doesn’t favor Kasich either. And so Kasich has erected a firewall: he signed legislation into law moving the Ohio primary to March 15, which will allow the winner–and Kasich is far and away the favorite–to secure all of the state’s 66 pledged delegates.

But Kasich will not win or lose based on mechanics. To succeed with the campaign he is playing, he will have to catch fire with voters. In early September, he thought he had come up with a way: play the Cincinnati-based indie band Walk the Moon’s hit, “Shut Up and Dance,” as his campaign theme. But his aides initially balked at the choice, opting for the far more anodyne “Beautiful Day” by U2.

A week later, the aides relented at a rally in Mackinac, Mich. The candidate was delighted. “I told them I wanted this music,” he told the crowd. Then he made his aides play it again, so he could dance. Which he did. Tentatively at first, and only for a short time. But clearly happier.

This appears in the October 05, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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