Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN)John Kasich bounds up the stairs with the enthusiasm of a kid coming home to the smell of something sweet baking in the oven.
The private meeting, which CNN was given exclusive access to, was held in the law offices of Tom Rath, longtime Republican National Committeeman and New Hampshire rainmaker.
Rath was an early supporter of Kasich’s 2016 campaign, and is now helping him keep in touch with the New Hampshire movers and shakers he would need to re-mobilize if he decides to run again in 2020.
Even in private, Kasich tells his New Hampshire supporters that he really doesn’t know if he will challenge President Donald Trump, but he is openly giddy about the encouragement he feels by the turnout of the more than 50 people who came to see him in the middle of the day on a Tuesday.
“I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, so we wanted to come here because I love to see you all,” Kasich blurts out.
After about 45 minutes of questions and answers, Rath wraps up this event he organized with not-so-cryptic parting words.
“It is my great hope that this is not the last time this group gets together to talk about this project,” Rath said with a knowing smile.
A day with Kasich in New Hampshire
CNN met up with the governor in downtown Manchester where he came for a series of local interviews. But as he arrived, Kasich let it slip that he had come from an important morning meeting with the publisher of the influential Union Leader, Joe McQuaid, whose endorsement GOP candidates traditionally jockey hard to win.
Kasich said they had a great meeting, and then laughed that he’s had those before and didn’t get the nod, but he didn’t seem distraught about it (The Union Leader endorsed then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2016, who ended up coming in sixth here and dropping out after the primary).
New Hampshire radio hosts Paul Steinhauser and Chris Ryan greet Kasich with the familiarity and ribbing of people that have spent a lot of time together.
They have. Kasich practically lived in the Granite State for months and months leading up to the 2016 primary, holding more than 100 town halls trying to appeal to the historically independent minded voters here.
“There’s a lot of people that are not whispering in my ear … they’re giving me the finger as I go by,” Kasich told them.
It’s a light-hearted moment shrouded in what Kasich knows is his challenging reality, one he openly talked about from interview to interview, event to event, all day long: As much as Kasich is applauded by anti-Trump forces for refusing to endorse the President, being a Trump gadfly makes a lot of Kasich’s fellow Republicans really angry at him.
“‘Why doesn’t he shut up and go away.’ And these come from staunch Republican Trump people were sick of” me, Kasich told reporters. “So, that must tell me I’m doing something right.”
Kasich, whose friends joke that he often lacks a filter to stop his internal debates and ideas from spilling out of his mouth, shared his conflicting thoughts with CNN throughout the day.
“I am not living in anger towards Donald Trump,” Kasich told us. “If he does a good job, I’ll praise him. If he does something I don’t like, I’ll criticize him and I have the opportunity now. How long it lasts, I don’t know.”
Sitting in a booth with him at the famous Red Arrow Diner, Kasich half-jokes that he is exchanging politics for philosophy.
“I fear, that we could be entering a post-truth era,” he mused.
“We can’t even agree on anything, so, how do you have a dialogue? How do you bring people together when we can’t agree on what’s real and what’s not? What’s the truth and not the truth?” he added.
“The answer for our country, in my opinion, leads us in the middle — the soft R’s and the soft Democrats.”
In a classically Kasich free flow move — by the end of the day he is verbalizing that he realizes that saying he is “in the middle” is bad politics because only roadkill is middle of the road. He comes up with the word “objective” to use instead.
During a car ride between events, Kasich stared out the window and reminisced about 2016, saying it was “about the poetry of people that I definitely learned here.”
“I got better and better at the town halls. Look, I still didn’t win OK … I was facing … an avalanche. … You know when you … get yourself in an avalanche just, just keep moving,” he said.
To run or not to run: And if so, as what?
Kasich’s term as Ohio governor is up in nine months. When most politicians say they don’t know what they will do next, they’re usually being coy. When Kasich says it, he really seems to mean it.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to run for president. It’s just not clear what path he could or would take to do that in 2020.
According to CNN’s latest polling, Trump still has support from 86% of Republicans. That means a GOP primary challenger would have a steep, if not insurmountable task.
When I reminded him about Trump’s popularity with GOP primary voters, Kasich called it “natural.”
“The people are very, very partisan today. It’s, to a degree, I like to think that sometimes I think that people have exchanged their religion for their party and it sort of rooting for your own football team,” he told us.
An alternative, of course, is to form his own team — run in 2020 as an Independent, which Kasich told CNN he sees as “unlikely” at this point.
To circumvent the two major parties would require a realistic plan to win, and major financial backing — maybe a billion dollars to get on ballots in all 50 states, guesses an adviser close to Kasich.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that he told us his biggest lesson from 2016 was that he needs to raise more campaign funds.
While Kasich keeps his “options open” — a term he probably uttered 50 times in this one day in New Hampshire, he says he is determined to stay relevant by speaking out. On this day that meant admonishing the President for going after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and driving their stock down, and slamming Trump for dashing the hopes in a tweet on Easter Sunday of those immigrants participating in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program.
“That’s not what leaders do,” he said of Trump. “I’m very disappointed in that.”
Regardless of what he does in 2020, he says feels compelled to remind people that politics and public discourse can remain “up here” he says moving his hands about above his head, and not “down here” as he lowered them.
He says “The Lord” could eventually tell him to “shut up,” but it hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s sort of like, it’s not just you hear voices. You get a sense of what you’re supposed to do.”
“Keep doing what I’m doing,” is how he describes his short term plan. He continued, “Even though there are times when I can be severely criticized, it’s okay, it’s part of it. If you can’t take a punch, get out of the business, you know?”
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