SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) – Republican presidential hopeful John Kasich brought his pitch to Rhode Island voters on Saturday, touting his record from decades in politics and urging them to reject the bombast of Donald Trump.
About 750 people, many of them students, crowded into a Bryant University rotunda to listen to the Ohio governor take questions at a town hall event, according to an estimate by the campaign.
Kasich kicked off his remarks on a somewhat unusual note for a political rally, talking about the equal value of all people and the importance of purpose in life. “You are made special, and you are made for a purpose,” he told the crowd, which gave him a warm reception throughout most of the event as he told stories and cracked jokes.
Acknowledging the same frustrations that have powered Trump’s rise in the polls, Kasich said: “The fundamental problem we’ve had in America is that our leadership has been very poor.” He added: “When we have had lousy economic growth for the last 15 years, it exacts a toll on us.”
Kasich had a sharp exchange with a student in the crowd, 18-year-old Nicholas Celico of Westerly, who asked how the candidate’s plans to lower the budget deficit would impact student loan debt. Kasich shot back by asking why Celico hadn’t gone to a community college, before discussing why tuition costs are too high and saying students should be able to restructure their loans.
Celico, a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, said after the event he is a Kasich supporter. “I didn’t know he was going to question me,” Celico told WPRI.com, “but it’s cool. I appreciate that he’s being honest. … Sometimes you need the cold, hard truth in life.”
Kasich was introduced by former Congressman Ron Machtley, the last Republican not named Chafee to win a congressional race in Rhode Island and now the president of Bryant University. Kasich described Machtley as his “old pal,” recalling their time together in Congress in the 1980s and ’90s.
“This is the only candidate, in my opinion, who understands the privilege, the prestige, and the purpose, not only of the presidency, but of the process to get there,” Machtley declared.
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Privately, local Kasich supporters acknowledge that Trump is almost certain to win Rhode Island’s primary on Tuesday. But they note that the state’s delegate rules are more favorable than others to second- and third-place finishers, which could allow Kasich to pick up roughly six of the 19 available.
J.P. Millette of West Warwick, a Kasich backer, was on hand Saturday sporting a “GOP” tie he said he’s had since the Reagan era. He praised Kasich as a moderate Republican in the mold of the late John Chafee, but said nearly all his friends are supporting Trump – including even his wife, who was with him Saturday.
Dawson Hodgson, co-chair of Kasich’s Rhode Island campaign, urged the town hall attendees to support the slate of local Kasich delegates on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary. “As you know, we are heading to a contested convention,” he said, echoing a message the candidate also delivered as he battles Trump and Ted Cruz.
Asked by a voter why casting a ballot for him isn’t a waste since he’s in third place, Kasich countered that national polls show him as the only Republican currently on pace to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the fall. “We’re optimistic about what the future holds for us in terms of a convention,” he said.
On policy, Kasich echoed familiar Republican critiques of the Democratic approach to the economy, warning that heavy regulations and taxes are a major hindrance to growth, particularly for small businesses. He said Democrat Bernie Sanders’ proposals could lead companies to leave the country.
Describing the proposals of both Clinton and Sanders as “free everything,” Kasich pointed to a clock showing the federal debt currently stands at more than $19 trillion and continues to climb – and said the two Democrats’ plans would push that figure to $30 trillion.
On Social Security, Kasich warned voters not to buy “false promise nonsense” from some candidates about the program. He said he doesn’t support stripping all benefits from wealthy individuals because it would turn Social Security into “a welfare program,” but said it should be means-tested to reduce costs.
Kasich also received applause when he called it “stupid” to bar all Muslims from entering the United States, as Trump proposed doing temporarily last year following the terrorist attacks in Paris. And he suggested Congress needs to rebalance the amount of money the Pentagon spends away from defense contractors and toward active military.
Deb Nelson, a Kasich supporter from East Greenwich, succinctly summed up why the candidate appeals to her: “Honest. Articulate. He’s got solutions. Faith-driven.” She said she’s hopeful Kasich could succeed at a contested convention, though she acknowledged she’s uncertain about the rules.
Following the Bryant event, Kasich went to a private home in Lincoln for a campaign fundraiser.
Kasich was the first presidential candidate to arrive on what will be a busy pre-primary weekend for Rhode Island voters. Democrat Hillary Clinton is scheduled to speak at Central Falls High School later Saturday, and her rival Bernie Sanders will hold a rally at Roger Williams Park on Sunday. Former President Bill Clinton is also expected to return between now and Tuesday.