Washington: As many Americans engage in a summer flirtation with outsider Republican presidential hopefuls, one of the most battle-hardened politicians in the 2016 race, Ohio Governor John Kasich, is rapidly gaining ground.
Kasich was a late entry into the 2016 run for the White House but has surged from the back of the pack into serious contention, according to experts and polls.
He shined at least week`s Republican debate. And the University of Virginia`s Center for Politics, which produces closely-watched campaign analysis, on Thursday placed him among the five candidates -- out of 17 -- most likely to win the Republican nomination.
Crowds have swelled at Kasich`s recent town hall meetings in New Hampshire, the crucial northeast state which holds the first-in-the-nation primary six months from now.
The 63-year-old pragmatic conservative does not adhere to ideological purity -- he has expanded Medicaid in Ohio under President Barack Obama`s health care reform, and said he accepts the Supreme Court`s gay marriage ruling -- a key test for core conservatives who vote in disproportionately large numbers in many primaries.
But his battle for moderate Republican voters and independents is resonating.
With billionaire tycoon and political bomb-thrower Donald Trump expected by many to fade from the race later this year, Kasich is suddenly one of the primary challengers to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who like Kasich espouses some policies towards the center of the ideological spectrum.
"For people with reservations about the Bush family name, John Kasich is a great substitute," Fergus Cullen, a New Hampshire Republican strategist who hosted a house party for Bush earlier this year but remains uncommitted, told AFP.
Bush`s large lead over Kasich in New Hampshire has all but evaporated.
After Trump, the son and brother of two presidents is second there with 13 percent support, according to this week`s Franklin Pierce University poll.
Kasich is just one point behind Bush, a statistical tie.Kasich was the last of 10 qualifiers for a kick-off August 6 GOP debate, but he enjoyed a breakout performance highlighting his empathy and authenticity, an optimism for America, and real world experience.
"Economic growth is the key to everything. But once you have economic growth it is important that we reach out to people who live in the shadows, the people who don`t seem to ever think they get a fair deal," Kasich said at the debate, held on his home turf.
"You know, America is a miracle country, and we have to restore the sense that the miracle will apply to you."
His performance in the debate seen by 24 million viewers "has certainly raised his profile," Cullen said.
Kasich previously had little national name recognition, but he has been around the political block for decades.
He spent 18 years in Congress, gaining valuable national security experience and where, as House Budget Committee chairman, he helped balance federal spending.
Kasich narrowly won his Ohio gubernatorial race in 2010, but was re-elected in a landslide last year after claiming success in lowering unemployment rates and balancing the budget.
On Wednesday, in good news for Kasich, Ford began production of its F-650 and F-750 trucks at an Ohio plant, after the automaker moved operations from Mexico back to the United States, bringing more than 1,000 jobs to Ohio.
Such economic revitalization could prove pivotal down the road: No Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio -- the mother of all swing states.
He has picked up influential New Hampshire endorsements, including Republican operative and former state attorney general Tom Rath, who recently highlighted Kasich`s "proven track record of balancing the federal budget, reforming our military and turning around one of our nation`s largest states."
And Kasich`s first television ad introducing him to Granite Staters as a fiscal conservative with a compassionate streak, went over well in New Hampshire where he was seeking to win over moderate voters.
His standing is more modest in Iowa, where evangelical voters feature prominently and are usually more supportive of archconservatives.
He heads there next week, aiming to win over skeptics at the Iowa State Fair, a quintessential campaign stop in national politics.