The timing feels right to backers of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“The iron is hot. But he has to strike soon,” said Nick Subak, 33, of Cuyahoga Falls.

They’re tired of loudmouth Donald Trump, whose center-stage bickering during Thursday’s CNN debate in Texas pushed Kasich out of the camera’s view for most of the night.

When Ohio’s governor finally caught a question on his opponents’ and party’s unyielding stance on illegal immigration, Kasich instead turned the conversation to capitalize on his compassionate conservative image that seems to be working. He spoke of a 12-year-old girl he met at a town hall meeting whose mom was inclined to not let her watch such nasty debates.

“What I’ve kind of observed in my workplace, especially now that there is a smaller field, [co-workers] are starting to take more notice of him,” said Josh Clark, a 28-year-old Canton resident who works for a plastics manufacturer. “Even though they’re from [Ohio], they’re starting to say, ‘Hey, who’s this guy? He’s being polite. He’s being courteous.’”

For the third in a series of sit-downs with supporters of one of the presidential candidates, the Beacon Journal hosted seven Kasich fans, six men and one woman, ages 28 to 69, all white, for a conversation last week.

They come across as a sensible bunch, considering the blistering rhetoric in the Republican primary. They write off Kasich’s gaffes as reminders of his unpolished authenticity, while Trump’s nastiness, they say, is deliberate.

They adore Kasich’s passion. They respect his humility. And they appreciate his tenacity.

And they love that he keeps you guessing, always letting his heart — not his party — take the lead.

Willing to be unpopular

The group recounted Kasich’s string of hard-fought battles in Ohio.

“He’s somebody who’s not afraid to take an uncomfortable position if he thinks it’s the right thing to do. And I respect that,” said a 28-year-old UA student, who is studying political science and wished to remain anonymous because he felt he spoke too openly. “Sometimes I think the mark of an effective leader is when you have both sides mad at you … Medicaid expansion was difficult. A lot of people were unhappy about that. But it’s been good for the economy.”

“He’s also gracious in defeat when things don’t go his way,” said Dave Collin, 54, of Macedonia. “You talk about Senate Bill 5 [a 2011 plan to curb unions]. I mean he pushed really hard for that. And when it went down he said the people voted, maybe we’ll revisit it later, maybe we won’t. But let’s move on.”

“It seems like ancient history now, but didn’t he also turn down federal money to build a railroad to Cleveland at the height of the jobs crisis,” said John MacWherter, a Hudson retiree. “And I thought that took some real guts to turn down that money when unemployment was rampant in the country and Ohio. And he said nope. It’s not the right thing to do.”

Collin worked the phones for Kasich’s 2014 gubernatorial re-election bid. He took heat for Kasich’s decision to cut state aid to schools and local governments.

“There were some pretty pissed-off people, pardon my French, that were affected directly by these cuts. But, you know, they’re not looking at the bigger picture … I mean everyone has to sort of tighten their belt to pitch in for the state to recover,” he said.

He said what?

The group would rather Kasich make promises to run over lobbyists with his policy bus or abolish teacher lounges (a remark he made early in the campaign) than behave like a polished politician. They relish the authenticity of his off-the-cuff comments.

“Now he has the bus. He has the ‘[Kasich] For Us’ bus,” the political science student said.

The group had a more difficult time defending a comment made that morning. But they tried.

They explained that Kasich’s comment, made Monday at a town hall in Virginia, about women coming “out of the kitchen” in the 1970s to support his run for the Ohio House was taken out of context and that the lieutenant governor and his campaign manager are female — all points Kasich’s campaign made, too.

“It’s an odd comment, but it fits that historical context of women entering the workforce,” the politics student said.

The female, a single mother who said she’s always worked, chalked it up to a personable candidate dropping his guard in an exhaustive schedule of town halls. “He actually speaks, as opposed to someone who reads off a teleprompter,” she said. “This is what he’s saying.”

“You’re right,” MacWherter, 69, said. “We all say something stupid every other week. [But] that wasn’t a time-frame thing. There were women in the workforce in ’78. There were a lot of women in the workforce in ’78. So, that was just a dumb comment, period.”

Kasich later apologized if the comments offended, noting that he’s not a “scripted” candidate.

A pass on failing schools

While the group recognized that Kasich could have moved faster to reform charter schools, which perform poorly on academic measures and misspend public funds faster than all other state-funded agencies combined, they have no problem with the governor’s stealthy, sweeping plan to snatch control of public schools from elected school boards, starting with Youngstown.

Kasich’s staff worked in secret to orchestrate the takeover of Youngstown City Schools, which have ranked among the lowest in the state for a decade. The controversial plan that was introduced and passed through both houses of the legislature in a matter of 12 hours removed the board and gave control to a state-appointed CEO.

“He’s a compassionate conservative but he’s making some firm, tough decisions by coming in and taking over the local school district with the blessing of the regional chamber of commerce,” said Tom O’Neill, who lives north of Youngstown and presides over the Trumbull-Portage County Young Republicans.

“Not everybody is going to be happy with what you do. But in the end, I think it’s undeniable that he’s gained a lot of respect,” O’Neill said.

Respect is key.

“People have either been loved, respected or feared,” Clark said. “The most effective one has always been respect because it’s the least susceptible to any change in the environment, where love can be a little fickle, and fear, you don’t want any of that. But the word I keep hearing with Kasich is respect.”

Too nice?

The group sees Kasich’s calm demeanor as an asset and an issue.

“I give him a lot of credit for that,” Subak said. “I hope that it’s not going to be to his disadvantage in the end, you know, to get some coverage. But he’s got a very humble persona about this whole process and I really respect that.”

“I think the problem is that he hasn’t been in the headlines,” said MacWherter. “That’s the big problem, he doesn’t talk in sound bites. He talks in complete thoughts and complete sentences and I think that’s hard for the press to get a handle on and hopefully the more exposure he gets, the more they’re going to realize that’s an attribute even though it doesn’t sell them any newspapers.”

“He’s not somebody to campaign through the debates,” the political science student said. “We have several candidates up there, who … say something incendiary, generate website hits and donations from that and then move on to the next debate, whereas Gov. Kasich has been running a ground-and-pound, grassroots, door-to-door style, which I love.”

Tea party extremists

Tea party attacks on Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid as part of the national health plan have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics, the group said.

“It’s the appearance of being in league with Obama by daring to accept money from him for this expansion when that money has nothing to do with Obama,” said Collin. “It’s to take care of Ohioans who can’t take care of themselves.”

Good luck convincing the tea party.

“The Trumpeters and the tea partiers, they’re not going to change,” MacWherter said.

“At one time, in the beginning, before tea party was tea party, I was tea party. And now they’ve totally changed their whole grass roots. And they cringe when I talk. And yet they’re so in that box. And they won’t listen to anything else. And the same thing with Trump people.”

What’s next?

The group is proud of how far Ohio’s governor has come. Some moderate states — Michigan and Ohio, in particular — could keep him in the race through March. Beyond that, there’s doubt and dread.

“I think he’s doing a pretty good job of managing expectations,” MacWherter said. “He made South Carolina’s finish sound like a win.” Kasich finished fifth and behind Jeb Bush, who dropped out. “People said he did pretty well there. But he’s got to kill Ohio [which is winner-take-all] and he’s got to do very well in Michigan or I do think it’s over.”

With the exception of Collin and MacWherter, none voiced support for a third-party candidate if Kasich should drop out. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is the second pick. They loathe Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas nearly as much as Trump or the other side.

“I can pretty much emphatically say I would never vote for Bernie,” Clark said. “I would never vote for Hillary. I would strongly prefer not to vote for Trump. But come hell or high water, if it’s Bernie versus Trump, I’ll hold my nose and I’ll pull the lever.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.