Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s poll surge in New Hampshire has spurred conservatives to warn social issues voters to be wary of him, saying he is one of the worst champions in the Republican presidential field when it comes to hot-button issues such as education and religious liberty.
Mr. Kasich, who has no illusions of a strong showing in Iowa, where religious conservatives dominate, has instead focused his campaign efforts on New Hampshire, where he has begun to resonate with the more socially moderate electorate.
Several polls over the past week show him having risen to second place, behind national front-runner Donald Trump. That has set off alarms for conservatives, who say Mr. Kasich, when given the chance to ally with them, has refused to enlist.
“We’ve been working hardest on two issues — religious liberty and opposing Common Core, and this is the one guy in the Republican field who staked out the opposite positions,” said Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project, which supported failed efforts to gut Common Core education standards in Ohio.
“He is not only not with us, he is questioning the idea whether there is any serious need for religious liberty protections, and he is somebody who wants to claim that Common Core is a positive achievement,” he said.
Indeed, even as other previous backers such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have flipped on Common Core, Mr. Kasich has stood his ground. He has said that he disagrees with the Supreme Court’s ruling establishing a national right to same-sex marriage, but “it’s time to move on.”
Ohio activists say the country is now seeing what they have witnessed up close.
“We have found that he is not a friend,” said Phil Burress, head of the Ohio-based Citizens for Community Values Action “I like John a lot. We have met on several occasions, and he had my total and complete support for his first and second run for governor, and to watch him run to the left now feels like a kick to the stomach. It feels like we have lost a friend.”
“The fact that he would not run in Iowa sends a clear message that he is not a conservative and is at best a moderate,” Mr. Burress said.
But Mr. Kasich has some defenders in the culture wars as well. In an analysis of his record, Heritage Action praised him for cutting funding for Planned Parenthood and for signing legislation requiring ultrasounds before abortions and banning the procedure more than 20 weeks into pregnancy.
“Until we hear differently, we will take Gov. Kasich at his word that he is pro-life,” said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group.
Mr. Kasich, though, does not focus his campaign on his pro-life credentials or stances on other social issues.
“He doesn’t wear [social issues] on his sleeve, and he clearly has taken a position in this campaign of being somebody who is quite willing to deal with the side, not someone who is going to go to the ideological extremes,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at the University of Ohio.
He said he views Mr. Kasich as a full-spectrum conservative.
“One way to put it is that I very much see Kasich as a business conservative,” Mr. Beck said. “He is a believer in low taxes and low regulations on business and has been very active in both respects in kind of promoting a pro-business agenda, but he also by the same token doesn’t want to put businesses in a position that makes it awkward for them.”
Mr. Kasich showcased that approach last year when he refused to endorse Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s push for a religious liberty bill that pitted business leaders and gay rights activists against religious groups and opponents of same-sex marriage.
“Everybody’s opinion has to be respected in all of this, and we have to strike a balance,” Mr. Kasich said at the time. “I think we have a good balance in Ohio, and I don’t see a reason to do any more.”
He also has lined up with major business groups, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, by backing Common Core and Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, which he defended on religious grounds, saying the move would help families stuck in poverty.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Kasich is driving home the message that he has shown — as a member of Congress and more recently in the governor’s mansion — that he has what it takes to bring Republicans and Democrats together on monumental economic and fiscal challenges.
He also has brushed off criticism that he is too liberal for Republican activists.
He touts his record on taxes and job creation, embraces school choice and frequently casts himself as one of the chief architects of balancing the federal budget in the mid-1990s.
“I’m as conservative as anybody in this race. And my record proves this,” he said last week on CNN.
A Suffolk University poll released last week found that Mr. Kasich has some crossover appeal.
Nearly 7 percent of voters said they would be willing to vote in the Republican primary instead of the Democratic primary to support Mr. Kasich — more than any other candidate in the field.
That approach, though, also is shrinking his pool of potential supporters.
Ellen Kolb, who runs a pro-life blog in New Hampshire called Leaven for the Loaf, said that among the activists she knows, Mr. Kasich “isn’t even on the short list.”
“That has nothing to do with his life-issues history or position; it’s simply that other candidates like [Ted] Cruz, [Marco] Rubio and [Carly] Fiorina are working harder for pro-life votes,” Ms. Kolb said in an email. “Where there’s active opposition to him, it’s coming from anti-Common Core people. Biggest pro-life voters’ concern is [Donald] Trump. He’s not a man in whom we have any confidence.”