Budget Hawk Eyes White House

Could the demise of the federal deficit prompt House Budget Committee chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, to make a presidential run in 2000?

Veteran GOP spin-meister Edward W. Gillespie hopes the challenge will prove irresistible to the exuberant eight-term Member. "It's like the Disney World commercials," he cracks. " 'John Kasich, what are you going to do now that you've balanced the budget?' "

Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) communications director, is part of a coterie of party activists who are informally advising Kasich on a possible bid for the Republican nomination. The group includes former RNC hands Curt Anderson, Donald L. Fierce and Charles Greener; consultants Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens; and GOP pollster Ed Goeas.

They're convinced that Mr. Deficit Hawk has a shot at becoming Mr. President.

So what's the case for Kasich? "Rank-and-file Republicans in the real world see him as an effective leader, a compassionate conservative and a new generation of leadership," Gillespie said in a recent interview. "Everywhere he goes he sparks this enthusiasm and excitement. People really respond to him. He connects."

Kasich himself says he's undecided. "It's really not unlike Mount Everest," he said in an interview. "You look at the mountain, and then over time, you just try to make an assessment of 'Do I have the guys who can climb with me, do I have the good Sherpas, do I have the resources to finance an expedition, am I going to be trained enough, fit enough to be able to do it?' I think that on most of those questions, I haven't made any decision. . . . I'm thinking about it."

What Kasich most cares about, he said, is not landing a particular job, but spreading his message of smaller government, personal responsibility and "breaking down the power of the elite" on issues ranging from school vouchers and Internal Revenue Service reform to "corporate welfare" at the Pentagon.

He's certainly boosting his visibility, often a clear sign of budding presidential aspirations. Kasich traveled to 38 states in 1996, and he's continuing a busy schedule of stumping for GOP candidates. Among his recent journeys: a three-day October swing through Iowa, the site of the caucuses that will kick off the presidential nominating season in 2000. He's also working on a book about ordinary Americans who've done heroic things. And last December, Kasich set up a political action committee, Pioneer PAC, which had raised about $180,000 as of early November 1997, according to his spokesman, Bruce Cuthbertson.

But for all Kasich's allure to some GOP regulars and Reagan Democrats, there are plenty of obstacles between him and the Oval Office. For one thing, conventional political wisdom places high odds against anybody making a winning run from the House. For another, battling to the top of a party ticket is a multimillion-dollar proposition--and Kasich's ability to raise big-denomination bucks is as yet unproved. Then there are the early poll numbers. Kasich ranked last among potential contenders for the GOP 2000 primary in a September poll conducted by Peter D. Hart and Robert M. Teeter for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

Gillespie insists that Kasich "would be a very appealing candidate," and he may well be right. But if the congressional budget guru finds himself with time on his hands in the postdeficit era, Disney World could turn out to be a much more realistic destination than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

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