“Mitt Romney’s biggest problem was the perception he didn’t care–that’s a Republican Achilles’ heel almost built into the party,” said former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “It would be constructive to have a candidate who could diminish that gap because they’re cut from a different cloth, they have a proven track record of helping the poor and middle-class, and their policies show it. For people like John Kasich, he feels it as a social calling. That has the potential to be attractive so long as it’s matched with conservative ideology.”

Indeed, Kasich’s governing message in Ohio sounds awfully similar to the “compassionate conservative” brand that Bush himself employed so successfully in 2000. Last August, Kasich told The Wall Street Journal: “I have a chance to show what it means to be successful economically, but also to have a compassionate side, a caring side, to help lift people up.”

Kasich’s narrow gubernatorial victory in 2010 was also notable for the coalition he built to victory: He was one of the rare Republican candidates who performed better with upscale voters than the working-class whites who make up the GOP’s base. Among college-educated whites, Kasich won a remarkable 63 percent of the vote, while noncollege whites backed him with 54 percent. Democrats attacked him for his wealth and his role as managing director for Lehman Brothers before the recession, but the populist attacks backfired among the state’s managerial class. Like Christie, Kasich could be well positioned to win a second term by racking up unusually high support from traditionally Democratic constituencies. A November Quinnipiac survey showed his job-approval rating at a healthy 52 percent, with the governor winning top marks from 32 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of African-Americans, and 49 percent of young (18-29) voters. He’s maintained his appeal with college-educated Ohioans, with 55 percent approving.