In this March 3, 2015, file photo, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley speaks at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley on Monday endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for the Republican presidential nomination, saying he has the executive-level experience and compassion necessary to lead.

Kasich joined Bentley at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in Birmingham, where the two traded autographed footballs after the announcement. Bentley said the venue celebrates grit, hard work and skill -- all of which he sees in Kasich.

"I have watched him over the years, and I chose him because of his heart," Bentley said. The governor called to offer Kasich support after seeing him in a recent debate.

Bentley is the first Deep South governor to endorse Kasich, who is generally viewed as among the more moderate Republican contenders in a crowded field that includes several Southerners. Bentley was a convention delegate for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and said this is the first time he has publicly endorsed a presidential candidate as governor.

Kasich, who served 18 years in Congress before being sworn in as governor in 2011, also is among the lesser-known Republican candidates. A strong performance during the first debate produced signs of momentum.

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Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland.

Kasich said that because of Ohio's financial situation, he didn't spend much time building broader name recognition and he thinks Bentley's endorsement will go a long way.

"It sends a signal in the South," Kasich said before pledging to return to Alabama. "It makes a big difference. Think of us as the engine that could."

Kasich said Bentley's endorsement is meaningful because he has made Alabama's state government more efficient and isn't afraid to lead.

Alabama faces a $200 million budget shortfall that lawmakers will again work to resolve during a second special session. Bentley was in Birmingham last week to rally support for proposals to use new taxes to fill the gap rather than cut state services -- a measure many Republican lawmakers have opposed.

Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley said Bentley should follow Kasich's lead and accept expanded funding for Alabama's Medicaid program like Kasich did in Ohio.

"Democratic lawmakers have long supported this expansion, along with a lottery, to help resolve our state's financial crisis," Worley said in a statement.

William Stewart, former chair of the University of Alabama political science department, said he was somewhat surprised Bentley didn't endorse a more conservative candidate.

"Bentley is not taking a position that is going to make him any more popular with the Republican Party of Alabama," Stewart said of the endorsement. "I don't think it will make much of a ripple in terms of political currents."