Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s optimistic stump speech brought roughly 1,000 people to their feet in a Westchester college gymnasium Saturday afternoon, ahead of the state’s April 19 Republican presidential primary.
Kasich, who badly trails his opponents, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), nationally in the Republican race, expressed surprise at the size of the crowd as he took the stage at Iona College in New Rochelle.
“Things are changing,” he said, before launching into anecdotes about growing up in small-town Pennsylvania, meeting President Richard Nixon as a college freshman, and his 18 years in Congress. He then took about a half-dozen questions from supporters.
Among the moments that drew applause was when a man who said he had high-functioning autism asked the governor how he would help people with the condition. Kasich praised the man for his courage and stepped off the stage to embrace him.
Afterward, the man, Paul Morris, 28, of White Plains, called the experience “a great memory.”
“I want him to win over Trump and Cruz,” Morris said. “That was the best experience I’ve had with a presidential candidate.”
The Ohio governor has campaigned with uplifting rhetoric that contrasts him with his more confrontational GOP rivals. On Saturday, he eschewed partisan attacks and spent several minutes telling his supporters they each have a unique purpose in life.
Kasich, in an implicit criticism of Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” said the nation’s greatness comes from its average people, not presidents.
“The spirit of our country doesn’t rest in a big shot,” Kasich said. Moments later, he added that some people “ingratiate themselves or seek fame or success by depressing us.”
He did not mention Trump or Cruz by name during the 90-minute town hall. Polls show Trump leading his GOP rivals in New York State. As Kasich has throughout the primary, he struck a more moderate tone than his rivals, talking at length about his support for programs that help nonviolent felons get jobs.
Kasich’s style resonated with Maureen Martin, a Democrat who said she could see herself voting for the governor.
“I like honesty,” said Martin, of New Rochelle. “And I like honesty with a vision.”
Her husband, Jim Martin, a Republican and retired FDNY paramedic, said Kasich “is the only Republican candidate, to me, with any reason.”
Asked by a supporter how he would win the nomination, the governor predicted party delegates in a contested convention would gravitate to the most experienced and electable candidate.
“All of a sudden, in that position in a convention, they’re picking the next president, and they don’t take that lightly,” he said.
Kasich, who spoke as he usually does next to a ticking counter purporting to show the nation’s $19 trillion debt, criticized government regulation and spending, and said it was government’s job to “free” citizens to tackle problems. His promise to “reinspire” Americans drew a standing ovation.
“You want to fight drugs? Do it. You want to fix your schools? Do it. You want to fix loneliness? Do it,” Kasich said. “This is not something you’ve got to wait for someone to come riding in here on a horse. They’re not coming.”
Kayla Kosach, a 21-year-old junior at Iona College, said she has supported the governor since the early days of the race when he was seen as an afterthought in a crowded field of candidates. She said she liked how he seems to be influenced by his Christian faith.
“I’m really passionate about the idea that you should support the candidate that reflects yourself the most, not who the media is steering you toward,” she said.