NORTH MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — An energized John Kasich heads into South Carolina's Republican presidential primary hoping to build on a strong showing in New Hampshire, but he's refusing to tailor or shift his message to fit the state's more conservative electorate.
"People told me: 'They're really conservative down there,' " Kasich joked to a crowd Wednesday in Mount Pleasant, his first campaign stop in the state since a debate in mid-January. "And I'm like, 'wait a minute, people are people — we all have the same concerns.' "
Kasich is making a three-day swing through the state with stops along the coast and in several population centers, making sure to hit the state's more moderate corners along the way.
In town hall meetings packed to the brim with supporters or curious voters, Kasich is making the case for a brand of conservatism that leaves no one behind. And he's defending himself as attacks against his conservative credentials start flying, chiefly over his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio despite resistance from his GOP-led Legislature.
Gov. Kasich is a good guy, and he's been a good governor, Jeb Bush said at a campaign stop Thursday in Columbia. "But my record as a conservative reformer far exceeds his, and that's not attacking, that's not negative, that's what you call comparing and contrasting."
Bush said Florida taxpayers "are appreciative" of the decision not to undertake expansion efforts, while Kasich "led the charge in Ohio to expand Medicaid. ... He can defend that all he wants, but that's the difference."
It's an accusation Kasich may hear again as the Republican campaign shifts to the South for the next month. From the Carolinas west to Oklahoma and Texas, none of the GOP-run states has embraced Medicaid expansion, and several of Kasich's Southern counterpart governors have been openly hostile to President Barack Obama's health care law, calling it a federal overreach — and worse.
But Kasich isn't backing down, arguing his decision has helped people suffering from mental illnesses or drug addiction and is a good deal for the state in the long run. As of December, roughly 650,000 Ohioans had enrolled under the expansion, and according to the state, Ohio's total Medicaid spending was nearly $2 billion below estimates for the fiscal year that ended in June — despite more newly eligible enrollees than projected.
His defense of Medicaid expansion dovetails with a key theme of his campaign: the idea that helping society's most vulnerable is a central piece of what it means to be conservative.
"It makes total sense to have a package that can make sure everybody has a chance to rise and I think the public loves it," Kasich told reporters Wednesday. "Somebody wants to hit me on it or hammer me on it, God bless them — I'm not going to back off this."
Still, that may be tough to sell in South Carolina and beyond. The governor here, Nikki Haley, won easy re-election in 2014 on her staunch rejection of Medicaid expansion and refusal to run a state-based exchange to sell private insurance policies, the other pillar of Obama's health care law.
"It's safe to say a majority of South Carolina Republicans are opposed to Medicaid expansion," explained state Rep. Murrell Smith, whose legislative committee handles health care policy. "It can be viewed as expanding government, which to put it mildly is just not very popular in South Carolina."
There's also the matter of the "Obamacare" law's namesake. Haley, who often called the law "wrongheaded" and "unconstitutional," mentioned the president often in her blistering critiques.
The president twice won Kasich's Ohio — and New Hampshire — but in South Carolina, Obama peaked at 44.9 percent of the vote in 2008. Moreover, a Winthrop University poll taken in December found that 93 percent of likely South Carolina GOP presidential primary voters disapprove of Obama's job performance.
Kasich emphasizes his overall opposition to the health care overhaul law, even as he defends Medicaid expansion.
It's just one of the positions that may not be popular with a deeply conservative electorate. Still, Kasich is not shying away.
"You notice my answers here are not pandering, because I'm not going to pander," he said at a Thursday town hall in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.
Kasich rarely offers up the type of red meat that his rivals such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz place at the center of their speeches. He's telling voters, for example, that he doesn't believe in deporting the millions of people living here illegally, because ripping people out of their homes and away from their children is un-American. And he readily admits that working with Democrats is essential to getting things done.
Kasich's campaign isn't expecting a victory in South Carolina. Rather, they're hoping to pick up delegates as they continue on to more favorable territory, starting with a couple of states in the Northeast and Minnesota on March 1 and Michigan's primary on March 8. But Kasich, still energized from Tuesday night's second-place New Hampshire finish, says he's ready to run hard everywhere, from the deep South to the Midwest.
He seems to relish questions from voters about where exactly he fits on the political spectrum.
"You know what I am?" he said Thursday afternoon. "I'm a Kasich Republican."
Barrow reported from Columbia, S.C. AP writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Meg Kinnard in Columbia contributed to this report.