John Kasich is Jeb's worst nightmare: Why his New Hampshire gains should terrify Bush

So it turns out that John Kasich *is* better than Jon Huntsman

Published August 12, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Tony Dejak)
(AP/Tony Dejak)

John Kasich is one of the 16 Republican presidential candidates who was decidedly not been scared off by Jeb Bush's total lack of swagger over the past eight months. Indeed, if the pre-announcement reporting was true, watching Jeb Bush's lackluster performance over the first half of 2015 was one of the main factors prompting Kasich to jump into the race.

Kasich will be gunning for the same voters that Jeb Bush will -- the moderate, establishment-friendly, not-a-total-jackass Republicans who have footholds in places like New Hampshire.

Already this sounds like a familiar story. Mitt Romney came into 2011 as the (perceived) candidate of moderate, establishment-friendly, n0t-a-total-jackass Republicans who have footholds in places like New Hampshire. Romney's well-funded campaign also got off to a lackluster enough start in terms of "human supporters" that his targeted voters appeared poachable.

The man who sought to poach those Romney voters was Jon Huntsman. Everyone in the media loved Jon Huntsman! He thumbed his nose at conservatives and, for whatever reason, centrist pundits thought that Republican primary voters would respond positively to this sort of thing. They did not. Huntsman never picked up enough velocity to compete with Romney in New Hampshire, and he was a terrible politician, and so he lost.

So when Kasich entered the race on the latter end of announcement season, a lot of political writers, like yours truly, couldn't help but note the similarities to the Huntsmania that never materialized. Kasich has also hitched his wagon to the services of moderate GOP strategist John Weaver. He's perfectly willing to defy (some) conservative litmus tests. The "Morning Joe" doofuses adore him. And the frontrunner he's challenging has far greater resources than he does.

Weaver took issue with the comparisons of Kasich to Huntsman, his previous presidential client. Calling it "pack journalism at its most glib and lazy" -- Hey now, that was not nearly me at my most glib and lazy, guy! -- Weaver went on to describe the differences. He went into depth about Kasich's record of conservative accomplishments... much like how he would go into depth about Huntsman's record of conservative accomplishments four years ago. He also noted that Huntsman came from wealth whereas Kasich is from a working-class background; that Huntsman was too uncomfortable in the spotlight; that Huntsman worked for President Obama while Kasich did not (this is probably the best point!); and that Kasich will have more money than Huntsman ever got from his rich daddy.

We'll see how the grand Kasich experiment develops over the course of the next few months. But for now, the point goes to... John Weaver. Kasich is doing great so far. And if he continues on this trajectory much longer, Jeb Bush is in trouble.

Since his announcement in late July and his strong debate performance last week, Kasich has gone from polling in the low single digits in New Hampshire to the low teens. The RealClearPolitics polling average has him neck-and-neck with Jeb Bush, behind only Donald Trump, whose campaign trajectory from here on out is... unpredictable. And Kasich's rise coincides with a leveling off, or even modest dip, in support for Jeb Bush.

Certain expectations have been set for Jeb Bush. Since Iowa really isn't his style and he's not going to bother competing there, it would really be in his best interest to win the first-in-the-nation primary. If Kasich can either maintain his support there or grow it, that's going to eat directly at Jeb Bush's base of support.

Some will say that losing New Hampshire would kill off Jeb Bush. I am not one of those people! He and his super PAC have more than enough money to stay in the race as long as they'd like and to trash anyone who dares approach. But how Jeb does in New Hampshire may determine the landscape of how the rest of the primary runs out. If Jeb wins it, he will probably have the same sort of bumpy, but rarely in doubt, march to the nomination that Romney had. If he loses it, then we may see a gritty, extended, and absolutely delightful battle for delegates between five or six candidates.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell

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2016 Elections Editor's Picks Jeb Bush John Kasich Jon Huntsman Mitt Romney Moderates New Hampshire