Imagining a Christie Campaign for President
Ask Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey whether his weight is a political asset or an election-year liability, and he shrugs.
“It depends on the day,” Mr. Christie said earlier this year, noting that his struggles with weight control could add to his “everyman” appeal or be a voter turnoff. “Some days it may be an asset and some days it may be a liability.”
That may be the best way to describe everything about Mr. Christie as he considers the entreaties of donors and prominent Republicans who are urging him to make a late entry into an unsettled field of candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination.
Those close to Mr. Christie say he is taking those entreaties very seriously despite his earlier insistence that he was not ready to be president. At one point this year, he joked that he would have to commit suicide to end the rumors of a 2012 candidacy.
But his very public resistance has given way to an urgent reconsideration, and his top advisers say the governor is well aware that he must make a decision, probably within days, about whether to mount a bid for the White House.
Mr. Christie, 49, a first-term governor whose paucity of government experience may be just what the doctor ordered, is a jumble of political contradictions. He’s a conservative with some liberal views, a New Jersey politician who can bully but also frequently talks about compromise, and an obviously reluctant candidate who clearly hears the call of the national stage.
“If Christie is the superpolitician his encouragers present, he should have the nomination locked up by mid-February,” said Jim Dyke, an unaligned Republican strategist. But he said Mr. Christie’s record would “offer insights, contradictions and surprises — all of which will sustain or destroy him depending on how he handles them.”
In two years as governor, he has succeeded in capping property taxes, rolling back pension benefits and balancing the state budget. But unemployment remains high in New Jersey, and his battles with the teachers’ union have become legend.
Questions remain about his viability as a national candidate. Mr. Christie has often strayed far from his party’s orthodoxy. In a speech last week, he praised the Bowles-Simpson plan to lower the nation’s debt in part with increased tax revenues from closing loopholes — a path opposed by many in his party.
He is on record acknowledging the “undeniable” science behind the idea that climate change is caused by human behavior, saying global warming is “real and it is impacting our state.” On gun control, Mr. Christie is out of step with Second Amendment supporters who view with suspicion any laws that restrict access to firearms.
When Jon S. Corzine, the former Democratic governor of New Jersey, accused him in 2009 of standing with the National Rifle Association, Mr. Christie’s campaign noted his support of the federal assault weapons ban. “Hardly the N.R.A. position,” his literature said.
The most problematic issue may be his stand on illegal immigration.
In 2008, as a federal prosecutor, Mr. Christie spoke what could be considered blasphemy among conservatives: “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” he said. “The whole phrase of ‘illegal immigrant’ connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.”
He has said repeatedly that leaders should not “demagogue” the issue of immigration, and he did not explicitly support tough state laws like the one put in place in Arizona last year. And when Tea Party conservatives were up in arms about plans to build an Islamic center near ground zero, he accused them of overreacting.
Mr. Christie’s less conservative positions may help him capture independents in a general election against President Obama. And his blunt, straightforward style might contrast well with the president’s well-known coolness.
In an era when people say they are tired of slick, preprogrammed politicians who faithfully repeat a focus-group-tested message, the New Jersey governor is anything but.
When Hurricane Irene was bearing down on his state’s coastline, he bellowed “get the hell off the beach!” He waved off criticism of his use of a state helicopter to go to his son’s baseball game as “silliness” (though he later reimbursed the state for its use). His vocabulary as governor regularly includes the words “stupid,” “crap” and “insane.”
He is the anti-Mitt Romney; unprogrammed and unscripted. And with Mr. Romney now appearing to be the one to beat in the Republican primaries, there may be no better time for an alternative like Mr. Christie.
“Polls show people are really frustrated with Washington right now,” said Scott Reed, who managed Senator Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “A little straight talk will go a long way.”
But Mr. Christie’s willingness to say anything could also hurt him in a presidential campaign in which mistakes, gaffes and flubs are hardly ever forgiven, as both Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas have learned.
For many people around the country, the image they have seen of a combative and feisty Mr. Christie is of him at a town-hall-style meeting, speaking bluntly to a teacher who stood up to accuse him of criticizing the profession. “If what you want to do is put on a show and giggle every time I talk, well then I have no interest in answering your question,” Mr. Christie said.
In another exchange captured on video, a woman asked why Mr. Christie sends his children to private schools.
“First off, it’s none of your business,” the clearly irritated governor answered. “I don’t ask you where you send your kids to school. Don’t bother me about where I send mine.”
But will such moments still seem like a breath of fresh air if they happen repeatedly on the campaign trail? One senior Republican strategist who is backing a current candidate suggested that voters might get tired of Mr. Christie’s combative routine.
“If you take the confrontational style all day, every day, I don’t know how that wears,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized by the campaign to speak about Mr. Christie.
People close to the New Jersey governor say his political range is wider than that. And in one popular video, it is.
Responding to a popular Internet video of a 4-year-old boy crying because he wants to be governor of New Jersey, a jovial Mr. Christie signed a proclamation in April making the child governor for a day.
If he were to run, Mr. Christie would have to quickly deal with his past reluctance to get in the race. And logistically, he would start off way behind.
In the past, Mr. Christie has insisted that he is not ready to serve in the White House. “You have to believe, as I’ve said before, in your heart and in your mind that you are ready,” he said in an interview in February. “And I don’t believe that I am.”
That answer has the obvious benefit of making him seem more honest than the average politician. But once he is a candidate, he would have to find a way to answer the inevitable question about how he suddenly changed his mind.
Mr. Christie will also immediately face the challenge of raising money. The excitement among some very wealthy donors suggests that that might not be too difficult. But running for president requires a large fund-raising organization, and he would start millions of dollars behind rivals.
Right away, Mr. Christie would face the challenge of his schedule. Every day that he spends on the phone with donors is a day he’s not spending in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — places that contenders have been visiting regularly for weeks.