DERRY, N.H. (AP) – Republican presidential candidate John Kasich defended millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally as "people who are contributing significantly" to the nation, taking on a divisive issue Wednesday as he promised to redefine conservatism during his latest New Hampshire appearance.
Kasich, a second-term Ohio governor, addressed immigration among other delicate political issues before a crowd of more than 200 packed into a small VFW hall, his second public stop in a two-day swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state. Kasich remains one of the lesser-known 17 Republican White House hopefuls, yet a strong debate performance in his home state last week has produced fresh signs of momentum.
Introducing himself to many New Hampshire voters for the first time this week, he offered a pragmatic approach to national politics likely to antagonize some of his party's more conservative voters.
He quickly dismissed a questioner during an afternoon town hall-style meeting who suggested immigrants in the country illegally are a burden on the system.
"A lot of these people who are here are some of the hardest-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people you can ever meet," Kasich said to a smattering of polite applause.
Speaking later to reporters, he said he would complete the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and would deport anyone who enters the country illegally once it's finished. He favors a pathway to legal status for such immigrants already in the country, and would not rule out a pathway to U.S. citizenship as part of an immigration reform package.
"It's not practical to move, or I don't even think desirable, to try to shift 12 million people out of this country," Kasich said. "These are people who are contributing significantly."
In tone and policy, Kasich's remarks on immigration are in line with those of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a popular target for tea party activists who question his conservative credentials. While primary voting won't begin for another six months, Kasich's early rise represents a direct threat to Bush's chances in New Hampshire, a state both men see as critical to their early state strategy.
The Ohio governor's comments stand in stark contrast to billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who described Mexican immigrants as "rapists" and "criminals" as he entered the Republican presidential contest earlier in the summer.
At Kasich's side for much of the day was former state attorney general Tom Rath, once a prominent supporter of Bush's brother, former President George W. Bush, who formally endorsed Kasich this week.
"I have enormous respect for the Bush family and for (Jeb Bush) personally," Rath said. "This is really not about Jeb Bush in any way. This is about John Kasich."
As he often does, Kasich devoted a significant portion of his remarks to those living "in the shadows" of society. He promised to help the mentally ill and drug addicts who end up in prisons and the working poor who don't have health care.
"I don't know how the Republican Party ever got itself put in the trick bag by somehow saying that if we care about people who are down and out, and we want to give them a chance to succeed, then somehow that's not conservative," Kasich said. "I think conservatism is about giving everybody a chance — demanding personal responsibility — but allowing people to pursue their God-given purpose is conservative."
He continued: "Hopefully in the course of all this, I'll begin to change some of the thinking about what it means to be a conservative."
The Ohio governor is scheduled to visit South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire again in the coming weeks.