In front of a Christmas tree inside a New Hampshire country club, John Kasich sat at a half-empty table, across the room from his wife, Karen, and their two teenage daughters. Waiting to hear him speak, a sparse crowd of about 30 people.
It seemed an unlikely place and an unlikely moment for an underdog Republican presidential candidate to electrify an audience. "The governor is on a tight schedule and will not be able to take questions," one of the organizers said.
Kasich, still sitting, shrugged. "I think I'll be able to take questions." The former congressman and twice-elected governor of Ohio then walked to the front of his small audience, eschewing the podium where his staffers had hoped he'd announce the formation of a coalition of women to support his presidential campaign.
There were two reporters in attendance for a candidate who is registering in single digits in New Hampshire, a state where Kasich hopes to break out. No network embeds. No local news vans parked outside. No policemen instructing voters where to park.
And it turned out there was just one woman in particular whom Kasich had in mind. The one whom, he later said, had just told him she had lost her son.
Kasich paused, stared out at the room. Glancing again at his daughters, he began recalling the tragedy that took his parents when Kasich was 35, just beginning his political career as a congressman.
"My wife and my kids never met my mother or my father. In 1987, my parents were killed by a drunk driver," he said. Kasich was close to his parents. As a child, he told his audience, he used to to worry about them driving on the icy streets of Pittsburgh, where he grew up. "I was always worried that one day they wouldn't come home," he said. "And then one day, they didn't. They didn't."
Then reminisced about his mother. "She was something else," Kasich said. "I get most of probably what I am from my mother. She was very, very smart. I mean, wicked smart—I don't think I got that from her," he added, provoking a rare chuckle in an otherwise rapt room. "But she was very smart and very opinionated."
Kasich said his mother "was a strong believer and she would preach to me about the Bible. And I would say, 'Mom, come on, get off my back.' And you know the way that sons are, right? And you hear your mom and you deny it in this ear while it's sinking into your head and your heart," Kasich said. "We used to really have a lot of arguments about things."
After one those arguments, "my mother called me, and she said, 'Johnny, we fight a lot sometimes in our family but you know we love each other.' And I never forget that," Kasich said.
Despite private pleas from campaign advisers and aides who have urged him to become more personal in a campaign climate where grief can go viral, Kasich has rarely retold his own personal story of faith and family.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie garnered praise for talking about his late mother's smoking addiction, and a friend who died of a drug overdose; former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina frequently recalls her battle with breast cancer, as well as her late daughter's battle with drug addiction; and Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, has discussed his parents' divorce.
Kasich has written about his parents' deaths, but has typically steered clear of discussing the tragedy on the campaign trail. His delivery of the story in Portsmouth appeared unpolished for such a seasoned politician. Two aides said afterward that it was unplanned.
"I don't really like to talk about this in a campaign mode because it's too personal," Kasich told the room. But he seemed to have a message he wanted to get across. "I've seen people who have gone through tragedy and they can never let it go and the tragedy goes for a lifetime. And I've seen people who have experienced tragedy and they've been able to let it go and they can even over time benefit from these excruciatingly difficult things.
"One thing we do know is that we live in a world where you have two choices: you either build your house on granite, or you build your house on the sand. But what we do know is that the storms always come, don't they?" he continued. "They always come. It's how we handle them. So in regard to the campaign, my whole job is just to give everybody a chance and everybody a little hope about their lives and their future. That's what this is all about."
No one applauded. The moment felt too intimate. But afterwards, Kasich garnered rave reviews from those at the event. "Personal and authentic," said LeeAnn Moccia, former president of Sea Coast Republican Women. Joan Griffin, an undecided Republican voter from Portsmouth, called Kasich's outpouring "heartwarming, engaging, compassionate."
"It was like sitting around my own dining room table—he's had me thinking about my grandbabies just before Christmas," said Ruth Griffin, an GOP local activist who backs Kasich. "Look, I"m a tough cookie—but even I was a bit misty eyed."
In an interview on his campaign bus after the event, Kasich talked about why he picked that moment to relive a painful memory. Partly, he said, it was "this season" and partly because "I just had a woman who told me she lost a son."
Kasich knows there's nothing a politician can do for people like that. "You know, my personal view is that they're in the hands of the Lord," he said. "And while that doesn't take away the pain, hopefully it will give you a little perspective. The other message for all people is that when these tragic things happen, if you can—if you can get out all of your feelings and all of your deep concerns—I happen to be a man of faith, cast your cares upon the Lord. The sun is going to come up."
Faith has been a comfort to Kasich. He said he returned to religion following the death of his parents.
But for those who don't have his faith, "I respect it," said Kasich. "I think everybody tries to live a life a little bigger than themselves, at least tries to change the world. To them, I wish the best in their recovery and a good attitude about the future."