On substance, Ohio Gov. John Kasich won Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in Detroit. On style, too, if your tastes don't veer toward sophomoric humor and yelling. Indeed, Kasich was the only adult on the debate stage.
You could have gathered that from watching the debate, or you could just let Kasich tell you. "Throughout this campaign I've talked about issues, I have never tried to go and get into these scrums that we're seeing here on the stage," he said near the beginning of the debate. "And people say everywhere I go, 'You seem to be the adult on the stage.'"
The fact that the debate was in Michigan, which holds its Republican primary next Tuesday, was important to all four candidates, but none of them needed to shine more than Kasich. He absolutely has to win his home state of Ohio a week later, on March 15, to stay in the race. Winning Michigan might actually make him a competitive candidate. But that won't be easy: Kasich is polling dead last in the Wolverine State.
In a post-debate interview with Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News pundit tried to diagnose why Kasich is lagging in fourth place. "You're far and away the best on policy in the field," O'Reilly said. "You have the most experience. But you're not feeling the burn. And you're not feeling the anger, and that's what has held you back." Kasich said he is angry, but that "you don't beat Trump by getting into an insult war with him.... I think the only way you beat Donald Trump is to have a vision bigger than his, and to show that your experience and accomplishments will pull people out of this ditch where they are." And if the GOP race gets to a brokered convention, as Kasich seems to hope, "they're going to pick an adult, they're not going to pick a yeller and a screamer."
That's Kasich's game plan — and it requires that he rack up delegates in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. To get started he needs a win in Michigan. And so, on Thursday night, the Ohio governor made his pitch in Michigan's biggest city. While Marco Rubio and Donald Trump were calling each other names and yelling while the other spoke, and Ted Cruz was tacking between trying to prove how principled and conservative he is and calling Trump a fraud and a liar, Kasich was talking about what he has done in Ohio and Washington, and what he plans to do if elected.
Kasich preached unity and kindness and the importance of taking care of problems with your neighbors and community. He told his rivals it was time to stop fighting. When moderator Chris Wallace asked him if he thought Donald Trump was naive about the threat from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kasich replied: "I'm not biting." He finished another answer by telling moderator Brett Baier, "Thanks for asking." When Kasich stated that unlike his three remaining rivals, "I won't need on-the-job training," it was believable.
Kasich's best answer of the night, though, was about fixing Detroit's school system. Cruz, when asked about Detroit's troubles, went on a strident tear about "failed left-wing policy." Kasich talked about what he had done when Cleveland public schools had a similar problem, ending with a paean to civility:
We as adults have to fight in our neighborhoods, in our communities, for our children's education. Put the politics aside, and everyone in this room can play a role in lifting their schools and lifting the students who are in those schools, because too much politics gets in the middle of it, and where we focus as adults, and put children first, we see tremendous results. And the people of this town are going to rise. [Kasich]
If Michigan Republicans are looking to elect a grown-up, that was Kasich's best pitch, especially effective because it focused on a real and serious problem in Motor City. Kasich's problem isn't just that he hasn't gotten as much free advertising as Trump — nobody has — and the other candidates, but that a significant bloc of the GOP electorate is, as O'Reilly said, somewhat confusingly, "feeling the burn."
Many political analysts and professionals had assumed people would get tired of the angry reality show playing out on the world's biggest political stage. Looking back, that seems kind of like a foolish presumption. But Kasich does have a sliver of hope, thanks to Thursday's debate.
The first glimmer comes from GOP opinion-meister Frank Luntz and his focus group of Michigan Republicans, who overwhelmingly picked Kasich as the debate's winner, 18 votes to 6 for Cruz and 1 for Trump. They liked Kasich's foreign policy answer, praised him as the "only adult in the room," and deplored the "sophomoric," "shameful," and "despicable" antics of the other candidates. If this is at all representative of the Michigan GOP electorate, Kasich might actually get the rare boost from a debate in the state where he needs it most.
The corollary is that aside from maybe Cruz, it was not a good debate for Kasich's rivals. In fact, it was such a bad night for Donald Trump that Gawker's Alex Pareene argued, plausibly, that the entire debate was an elaborate trap engineered by Fox News. Kasich needs this, too.
In the latest poll of Michigan, by the Detroit Free Press and several local news outlets, Kasich is lagging in single digits, getting 8 percent of the vote to Trump's 29 percent, Cruz's 19 percent, and Rubio's 18 percent. Kasich was the second choice of 18 percent of the respondents, just behind Rubio, so if Rubio and Trump see any significant drop from their crude verbal fisticuffs, it should help Kasich most of all.
Kasich's path to the Republican nomination is pretty narrow. "I kind of think before it's all said and done, I'll be the nominee," he said at the end of the debate, when asked if he would support Trump. "I'm the little engine that can." He said it with a twinkle in his eye, so you couldn't quite tell if he was in on the joke. But if the Ohio governor is going to ride his appealingly sunny technocratic love train past the ides of March, the track goes through Michigan first.