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Kasich Eagerly Rolls a Verbal Juggernaut in White House Bid

The Ohio congressman stages a buoyant, somewhat seat-of-the-pants effort to become the alternative if front-runners for the GOP nomination stumble.


In Iowa, he goes bowling. In New Hampshire, he mushes sled dogs. In California, where the purest form of political sport is raising cash, would-be U.S. president John R. Kasich is racing down a Los Angeles freeway, from one fund-raiser to the next, a rat-a-tat-tat torrent ricocheting from his lips.

The Republican congressman from Ohio hails the next car: "Turbo, baby, with a little Van Halen out of the speakers." He ponders tomorrow's speech: "We have to figure out what I'm going to talk about."

He is jousting over baseball's best pitchers--"Koufax, he was all right. . . . Nolan Ryan just powered every game"--when Hollywood beckons.

"Where's the Palladium? Look! There's Capitol Records! Where's the Hollywood Bowl? What is it?" he asks, pointing to a freeway sign before the cliff-hanging homes on the hills above catch his eye. "Who lives up there?"

He shifts in the front passenger seat, having long ago escaped the confines of his seat belt, and beckons his driver like a mock-tourist.

Boyish Demeanor and Budget-Cutting Verve

"We wanna see some stars, Chris," he cajoles. "I'm not leaving California till we see some stars!"

This is a stream-of-consciousness campaign for the presidency, a verbal juggernaut in which policy pronouncements, social observations and anecdotal non sequiturs merge into a buoyant, if somewhat seat-of-the-pants, effort to take the country by a storm.

At the center of it all is 16-year congressional veteran Kasich, a politician best known previously for his boyish demeanor and a budget-cutting verve that occasionally ticked off his party leaders, now trying to transfuse his enthusiasm for himself to the rest of America.

He is typical of most of the Republican field this year, candidates who with flurries of handshaking, fund-raising, phone calls and heavenward looks are hoping to position themselves as the alternative should the current front-runners, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Red Cross president Elizabeth Hanford Dole, stumble or decide they have other plans for 2000.

Theirs is a parallel universe, where self-confidence and a sense of destiny out-fuel logic and historical precedent, and Kasich, 46, has a full tank of both. The cities rush past as quickly as the days: five days in California, then Seattle, Columbus, Chicago, Milwaukee, Youngstown, Cincinnati, Miami, Vero Beach, all in a week.

Let others tut-tut about his longshot status. In a conclusion almost stunning in its un-Kasich-like brevity, he has this to say about the upcoming contest for president:

"It never happens the way people think it's going to happen."

The hard truth is, most of the time it does. Most of the time, the front-runner goes on to win the nomination and meet the other party's front-runner--in this case, Democratic Vice President Al Gore. But things are a bit less predictable this year, given that Bush has never run as a national candidate and Dole's presumed entrance into the race is still doubted by some analysts.

So opportunity is knocking for Kasich, and to some extent he has opened the door. Last week in Los Angeles, he announced that he had raised $1.3 million in the first three months of the year, well behind Bush but ahead of Dole and other lesser-known candidates.

His is not the cautious candidacy of Bush, who is waiting out the Texas legislative session in Austin before treading onto the campaign trail, nor of Dole, whose penchant for control has led her to quash almost all attempts by reporters to draw her out on issues.

Kasich's is a full-tilt assault, refreshing for its lack of guile and lack of varnish, and his eagerness to gab about virtually anything. Which is not to say that it always makes sense.

Education, for example, has been grabbed by Kasich as a perfect demonstration of his "bottom up" philosophy that power now held by the federal government should be sent back to Joe and Jane Citizen. He wants "total school choice," which would allow states to organize schools as they wish, even using tax money to send children to private schools. A free-market enthusiast, he envisions entrepreneurs setting up new schools and competing for students. What qualifications would the entrepreneurs have to have? "Minimal qualifications," he says.

'I Know What We Have Ain't Working'

He has little patience for concerns that some of the neediest children could be left behind: "I don't know what will come, but I know what we have ain't working."

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