MANCHESTER, N.H. — John Kasich had been here before. This much he pointed out, twice, before anyone had a chance to wonder why he was back.
“Wow!” he called out, stepping into the Red Arrow Diner on Tuesday for an unannounced stop, emitting the kind of surprise that only a politician can summon over three dozen people eating lunch. “It was just this crowded the last time.”
Mr. Kasich sidled up beside the counter, squatting to greet a young customer, Sophia Bauer, whose name he seemed to hear as “Sylvia.”
“How old are you?” he asked. “Five? Are you going to be in first grade? Do you have a dog? Oh, really?” Soon, Sophia was being tickled by the two-term Republican governor of Ohio.
He led her by the hand toward a booth in the corner, where a television camera was waiting. “Isn’t that cool?” he said. The two peered into the camera together. The governor smiled. Then Sophia was dismissed. “All right, Sylvia,” he said. “Go back to your mom.” It was time to talk to CNN again.
It is both unclear what Mr. Kasich is doing here, in the first-in-the-nation primary state, and entirely clear what he is doing. He is not not running for president.
There would be nothing unusual about this — convening with past supporters and advisers from his 2016 campaign, making the rounds to talk up his record, congratulating the locals on their wisdom, their food, their can-do attitude — but for some inconvenient political context for Mr. Kasich.
President Trump intends to run for re-election in 2020, and he has beaten Mr. Kasich before — here (by nearly 20 percentage points), elsewhere, and everywhere but the governor’s home state during the last round of primaries. In a party that, since then, has broadly pledged itself to Mr. Trump in sickness and in health, the president would almost certainly beat him again if the race were held today.
But then, the race is not being held today, and Mr. Kasich is not exactly who he was in 2016, when he finished a semi-surprising second here. He is now one of the few prominent Republicans willing to knock Mr. Trump on health care, climate change, Russia and other issues in front of any television camera that will have him. In doing so he has won a new set of national admirers, though not always those who vote in Republican primaries.
“I think I’m increasingly viewed now as not just a Republican but as something different, kind of a hybrid,” he said in a half-hour interview on Tuesday, shuttling between stops in an S.U.V. “I have people of all shapes, sizes, philosophies and party preferences that approach me. But what does that mean? I don’t know. I’m on television, so all the sudden they want to talk to me. Television moves everybody up, right?”
That remains to be seen, electorally. A University of New Hampshire poll released in February found that 60 percent of the state’s Republicans would support Mr. Trump again in a primary; 18 percent planned to vote for someone else. Another recent poll was more generous to Mr. Kasich, though it still showed Mr. Trump with a clear edge. And while some prominent Republicans in the state, like former Senator John E. Sununu, remain vocal Kasich defenders, few sitting officeholders have made a point of consistently challenging Mr. Trump.
Mr. Kasich’s case against Mr. Trump rests as much on tone as substance. The governor, a longtime supporter of free-trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been sharply critical of the president’s tilt toward protectionism on trade, saying it runs afoul of the Republican Party he knew. He has also lamented the president’s bid to dismantle DACA, the program aimed at protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
On this and other issues, though, Mr. Kasich has sought to contrast himself with Mr. Trump most pointedly as a spokesman for national decency. Rarely was he more animated on Tuesday than during a discussion of the president’s Easter morning tweet declaring, “NO MORE DACA DEAL.” “On Easter,” the governor said on Tuesday, later adding, “Come on, leaders don’t do that.”
Officially, Mr. Kasich says, another run for president is not on his immediate radar, but he is keeping his options open, maintaining the relationships required for any prospective campaign.
Regardless of his eventual choice, Mr. Kasich has succeeded, at least, in installing himself permanently in the grand drama of the Trump era, drawing a pack of reporters to New Hampshire in an off-year on the pretext of a question-and-answer session at a college and ensuring that the news media will continue to track his doings once his term expires in January.
“He enjoys being consequential,” said Tom Rath, a senior national adviser to Mr. Kasich’s 2016 campaign and a former attorney general of New Hampshire. “That alone would be enough to continue this effort, whatever you want to call this effort.”
Mr. Kasich, 65, has excelled for decades at such relevance retention, to say nothing of reinvention. During a hiatus from politics in the early and mid-2000s, he was the host of a Fox News show, “Heartland With John Kasich,” broadcast live from Columbus, Ohio — and at times, a fill-in for Bill O’Reilly — while working as an investment banker for Lehman Brothers.
Known to colleagues as prickly and blunt as a nine-term congressman, he now projects a can’t-we-all-get-along buoyancy about the ways of the world, calling himself “the prince of light and hope” in the 2016 primary field and proving to be a prolific purveyor of campaign trail hugs.
Since then, Mr. Kasich’s perpetual skepticism of the president has contributed to the impression that he was something of a silver medalist in 2016, the last man standing between Mr. Trump and high office. In practice, that was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Trump’s only true threat by the middle of the primary season. Mr. Kasich, who did stay in the race one day longer than Mr. Cruz despite trailing him by about 400 delegates, was such a nonfactor that Mr. Trump did not bother with a nickname for him until late April 2016. It was “1 for 38 Kasich.”
If the governor ran again, said Corey Lewandowski, Mr. Trump’s one-time campaign manager and a veteran of New Hampshire politics, “He’d be 0 for 50 John.”
Jeanie Forrester, the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, reported few rank-and-file voter concerns about their leader in Washington, even as Trump critics like Mr. Kasich and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who visited last month, make pilgrimages to the state. “Everybody is feeling pretty good,” she said.
Still, Kasich allies see a way, noting the state’s wealth of independent voters and observing that far more New Hampshire residents sided against Mr. Trump, who won the primary with 35 percent of the vote, than with him. (Many more, of course, declined to support Mr. Kasich, who received 16 percent.)
As the generally popular governor of a longtime bellwether state, Mr. Kasich has distinguished himself from some fellow Republicans on policy, expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and pushing for new gun restrictions after recent mass shootings.
At least as central to his political brand, currently, is a contrarian streak that lurches beyond substance. He can speak at times like a sort of Midwestern oracle with a sweet tooth, by turns invoking Aristotle and Aquinas, raising the radio volume for “Stairway to Heaven” and holding forth on the majesty of dessert.
“Human reason is imperfect,” he said at one point during the interview, borrowing from his recent State of the State address back home.
“I like Bowie. I love Lady Gaga,” he said at another.
“Friendly’s!” he cried soon after, when a fellow passenger mentioned that a Friendly’s was near. “I want to go to Friendly’s.” (He got to go to Friendly’s, chasing his fish-and-chips from the diner with a kind of omnibus sundae known as the Jim Dandy.)
A short while later, Mr. Kasich arrived for the stated purpose of the trip: a fireside forum at New England College in Henniker, where a bipartisan crowd of some 150 students and political veterans received him warmly. “He’s a positive voice,” said Gary Glines, 60, whose wife, a Democrat, had turned his attention to Mr. Kasich before the 2016 primary. “She said, ‘You need to listen to this guy. He sounds like you.’ ”
By the night’s end, Mr. Kasich, appearing for over an hour, sounded like a person running for president — or, at least, a person reminding New Hampshire that he is not this president.
He lamented the “namby-pamby” of his fellow politicians. He pledged to “do the best I can at doing the best I can.” He encouraged the crowd to give an ovation to Dana Bash of CNN.
And when the moderator asked if Mr. Kasich believed New Hampshire should keep its place at the head of the political calendar, the governor pandered knowingly. The Iowa caucus, he said gently, should probably still come first, despite that state’s shortcomings. “I spent a year there one week,” Mr. Kasich said. “Just kidding, Iowa!”
The joke did not kill, even in this room.
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