John Kasich, the youthful-looking, straight-talking 63-year-old two-term governor of Ohio who narrowly squeezed into last place in the starting 10-man prime-time lineup in the Republican presidential debate last week, pulled a major upset by emerging as a surprising standout on his home ground in Cleveland.

A majority of political commentators agreed that Kasich delivered a solid performance that he badly needed to differentiate himself from a very crowded GOP field overshadowed by the seemingly overpowering personality of businessman Donald Trump.

The down-to-earth governor had announced his candidacy less than a month ago, and had very little name recognition outside the Buckeye State. But no longer. After managing to avoid the so-called second-level group of seven candidates who did not poll in the top 10, Kasich — known as an upbeat guy and an optimist — emerged as one of the major “favorites,” if you measure the results by the comments of the media-savvy political pundits and the eager-to-predict pollsters.

GOP front-runner (at the time) Donald Trump may have dominated the debate time wise, but Kasich had his outstanding moments, using his home-field advantage to highlight his blue-collar upbringing as the son of a mailman, and receiving support and some of the most enthusiastic applause of the night while defending his decision to expand Medicaid through President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

In a moment that could have been seen as a major political challenge, Kasich was asked about his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, a major GOP target for extinction. But the swing-state governor passionately defended his decision, saying, “I had an opportunity to bring resources back to Ohio, to do what? To treat the mentally ill. Ten thousand of them sit in our prisons at $22,500 a year. I’d rather get them the medication so they can lead a decent life.” And to applause from his home state audience, the governor, known as a budget hawk, added, “Finally, we went from $8 billion in the hole to $2 billion in the black. We’ve cut $5 billion in taxes.”

He also delivered a surprisingly positive answer when he was asked about gay marriage. He said he accepted the Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, although he himself believes in traditional marriage. But, he added, “Because somebody doesn’t think the way I do doesn’t mean I can’t care about them or I can’t love them.” That includes his own daughters, he said, “no matter what they do.”

Kasich dramatically raised his profile, and looked presidential, according to several accounts of his performance. He was reported by MSNBC to be the fifth most mentioned candidate on Twitter throughout the broadcast of the debate. It was also clear that Americans wanted to know more about the little known governor with top Google questions during the Q&A on Kasich, including, “How old is John Kasich?” and “Who is John Kasich?”

The former Ohio congressman (1983-2001) was a friend and colleague of the popular 4th District Republican Congressman Chris Shays, who represented Westport for 22 years, from 1987 to 2009.

In an in-depth profile titled "The Gentle Man from Connecticut" published in the October 1998 issue of Westport magazine, this writer reported Shays’ opinions of a number of his congressional colleagues. He praised John Kasich, in particular, as a fellow member of the Congressional Prayer Caucus: “I am trying to help John Kasich,” he told me. “I have tremendous respect for him. He can be irreverent but he is wonderfully refreshing. He’s smart ... a fighter ... a fiscal conservative who cares about people.” Asked who he favored as a possible GOP candidate for president in 2000, Shays replied, quickly and firmly: “John Kasich!”

Shays lost to Democrat Jim Himes in the 2008 election. In 2009, Shays was appointed co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. The commission was an independent, bipartisan legislative body established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shays was a candidate for the 2012 Republican U.S. Senate nomination to replace retiring Democratic Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.

However, he lost the primary to heavily financed Republican Linda McMahon, who went on to lose the election to Democrat Chris Murphy.

Summing up, Jeb Bush, the early GOP favorite to go against Hillary Clinton, the other early Democratic Party favorite, may yet be the Republican nominee. But John Kasich so far appears to be stealing some of Bush's thunder and could go all the way.

Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His “Out of the Woods” column appears in the Westport News every other Friday. He can be reached at