Conn Carroll

Townahll.com Senior Political Editor and Fox News contributor Guy Benson handicapped New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's potential presidential campaign for the February issue of Townhall Magazine.

I know that tonight, a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington...” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is interrupted by cheers of agreement before he can finish his sentence.

He pauses, then resumes. “Looks to New Jersey to say, ‘is what I think is happening really happening? Are people really coming together?’ ... Let me give the answer to everyone who is watching tonight. Under this government, our first job is to get the job done, and as long as I’m governor, that job will always, always be finished.”

The hall erupts. It’s the evening of November 5, 2013, and Christie has just won a smashing re-election. The noticeably trimmed-down winner is delivering his victory speech, flanked by his young family and surrounded by a diverse group of well-lit, beaming supporters. As he contrasts his record in New Jersey with the bitter paralysis that characterizes Washington, D.C., any lingering doubts seem to melt away: This man is going to run for president.

A REAL LEADER FROM A BLUE STATE
Conservatives of various stripes may greet that prospect with great hope and enthusiasm, wait-and-see suspicion, or outright hostility. Christie is an unusually skilled pol with a knack for building his personal brand, including among many who aren’t typically disposed to give Republicans a second look. But he’s also a straight-shooting Northeastern Republican who isn’t afraid of offending the party’s base, or anyone else, for that matter.

As the GOP seeks a leader who can shepherd the party in from the cold after eight years in the Obama wilderness, Christie cuts a striking profile that cannot be ignored. Love him or hate him, New Jersey’s governor is going to be a player. Any chance that Christie would fade into the background officially died on Election Night 2013, when he won a truly momentous victory in a deep blue state.

New Jersey is one of the few places in America where President Obama actually improved his victory margin from 2008 to 2012. Prior to this past November’s triumph, no Republican had won any statewide office with more than 50 percent of the vote since George H.W. Bush carried the state in 1988. Christie ran away with 60 percent of the vote. He won 93 percent of self-described Republicans, 66 percent of independents, and nearly a third of Democrats. He transcended his party’s recent struggles with women voters, dominating his female opponent by 15 points within this demographic. He split the youth vote. And in a feat that is sure to make major GOP donors salivate, he carried a majority of New Jersey’s Hispanics.

The incumbent won all but two of his densely-populated state’s counties, carrying the suburban bellwether of Bergen County by 22 points, and even picking off heavily-Democratic Camden and Union counties, each of which Obama won by two-to-one margins just one year prior. And thus, a governor who’d eked out a single-digit win over Jon Corzine in 2009 managed to steadily build his popularity throughout his term, then lock down a breathtaking re-election landslide.

Critics argue that he benefited from residual goodwill over his handling of Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged the state in the fall of 2012, and from a weak opponent. Both points are well-founded, but Team Christie would say both advantages were earned. Presiding over a natural disaster does not guarantee political success; just ask former-President Bush, former- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and former-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You’ve got to get the job done. And Christie faced sacrificial lamb Barbara Buono for one reason: Top tier challengers like now-Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) took a pass.

A MIXED RECORD FOR CONSERVATIVES
Piecing together a broad victory coalition in one of America’s most liberal states is a far cry from navigating the channels of a national Republican primary. As the newly-installed chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie will enjoy invaluable opportunities to fundraise and campaign for governors in 2016 battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin... not to mention, ahem, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. He’ll make his presence felt, collect chits, and develop relationships with the party’s moneymen.

The greatest network on the planet, however, may not be enough to emerge from what is shaping up to be a strong 2016 presidential field. In his home state, Christie could count on the strong support of beleaguered Republicans, who were desperate for someone, anyone, to slam the brakes on runaway spending, unfunded liabilities, and tax hikes. After he won his contested 2009 primary, Garden State conservatives had nowhere else to turn. That won’t be the case in 2016, and a sizable chunk of the GOP’s most ardent supporters harbor misgivings about the Big Guv.

Some of those concerns stem from Christie’s unqualified embrace of Obama in the immediate aftermath of a historically destructive storm that happened to hit mere days before a charged presidential election. Christie’s defenders say he was just doing what was necessary for the people of his besieged and battered state, while staying true to his “can do, politics- aside” brand of leadership. Skeptics say his famous bear hug of Obama was needlessly fawning and a betrayal of Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

One expects Christie will defend himself vigorously and persuasively on this particular point, but some conservatives’ questions extend far beyond the Sandy dust-up. Those on the rank-and-file Right will find Christie’s record to be a mixed bag.

On one hand, Christie has balanced budgets while stopping every tax hike Democrats have thrown his way, divided and conquered Big Labor to achieve much-needed pension reforms, pulled New Jersey out of a job-killing regional “cap and trade” scheme, and refused to set up an Obamacare state exchange.

On the other, he’s acquiesced to his state’s pro-gun control sensibilities, demagogued House Republicans over attempts to remove pork from a Sandy relief bill, and agreed to, at least temporarily, go along with Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion after slamming it as a form of “extortion.”

Social conservatives will applaud his pro-life record, which entails denying state funds to Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, and addressing the annual March for Life in Trenton. But Second Amendment advocates will find plenty to loathe in his executive actions and statements. How Christie plans to cast his record could determine whether he’s deemed to be sufficiently conservative to capture the party’s nomination.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HIM
The governor’s opponents would be foolish to rule out that possibility or underestimate his appeal, says Fox News contributor Mary Katharine Ham. “I’d direct anyone who thinks he’s too moderate to win, to look at our last two nominees,” she says with a chuckle. “And I think Christie is more effective than either McCain or Romney, and might actually be more conservative, too. In some ways, he takes the exact opposite approach to Obama-style governance, which is not to govern. Christie governs, and governs with a vengeance. He leads. He makes things happen,” she says.

Ham concedes that she’s not wild about Christie’s record on every issue, guns in particular, but “he’s held the line on taxes and instituted big reforms in a blue state. Those things are powerful and really matter.”

New Jersey resident and National Review Institute Senior Fellow Andrew McCarthy isn’t quite as forgiving. “For the country, Republicans can do much better,” says McCarthy, who voted for Christie in 2009, then withheld his sup- port last year when it became clear the Democratic candidate didn’t stand a chance. “Christie is an outstanding governor for a blue state. Right now, given the way the politics are here, he is as good as a conservative could hope for in a state with no strong GOP or orga- nized conservative movement to speak of. But America isn’t New Jersey, and [as a presidential nominee], Christie would represent the triumph of the Republican establishment.”

“He’d be more about showing the country that we’re not so scary, rather than moving the public in our direction,” McCarthy reasons. “The big thing with Christie is that he’s not really opposed to the infrastructure of big government. He just thinks it’s run irresponsibly by Democrats. What conservatives are looking for is someone who wants to limit government, not just manage it better.”

McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who put the so-called ‘Blind Sheik’ behind bars for the first World Trade Center bombing, says he also believes Christie is “insensitive to the point of reckless” on the threat of radical Islamism.

CAN HE WIN OUTSIDE NEW JERSEY?
Conservative thinker and writer Peter Wehner has served tours of duty in the last three Republican presidential administrations, dating back to Reagan. He sees a political star in Christie, but isn’t totally sold just yet. “As a politician, he’s obviously very impressive. He may have the best skill set out of any Republican on the scene today,” Wehner raves. “Christie is not robotic. He’s spontaneous, likable, and smart. What I’m not sure about is whether someone of his personality would appeal outside of the Northeast. There are some rough edges to him,” he says, noting that Christie will have to enhance his level of discipline as a candidate on the national stage.

Washington Examiner senior writer Philip Klein raised similar temperamental questions in a column last spring. “It’s questionable how Christie’s brash New Jersey style will play out beyond the Northeast,” Klein wrote. “One thing I kept running into among voters in early states when covering [Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential] campaign was that his background as a New Yorker was a real turnoff and made voters view him as rude and somehow shady. As somebody who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area, I underestimated how repellant it can be.”

Then again, Christie’s no-holds-barred style hasn’t alienated heartland voters just yet, even as he’s emerged as one of the most recognizable figures in Republican politics. If average GOP voters are turned off by Christie’s Jersey schtick, early 2016 polling hasn’t detected it. In a Gallup survey taken over the summer, Christie enjoyed a 53/25 favorability rating among Republican voters. While his net favorability rating (+28) was the lowest of the five politicians polled, Christie’s name recog- nition was more robust than anyone else on the list, with the lone exception of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the party’s vice presidential standard bearer in 2012. A CNN poll taken after Thanksgiving gave Christie an early double-digit edge in the 2016 GOP sweepstakes. Several national polls show Christie running roughly even with Democrat Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical match-up.

Jennifer Rubin, a Washington Post blogger, believes that Republican candidates across the country should learn from Christie’s example. One of the qualities he models is authenticity. “Don’t be a phony. Christie’s favorite phrase, ‘I am who I am,” should be every candidate’s mantra,” she wrote in an early November post, adding, “humor helps.”

If this is Christie-being-Christie, then voters like what they’re seeing. More than a month after his historic re-election, Christie’s job approval rating floated to a stratospheric 65 percent. New Jerseyans, like Americans, love a winner. But public opinion is notoriously fickle. In a presidential context the truculent governor’s aggression against critics could rub some people the wrong way. McCarthy warns that Christie’s penchant for lashing out at critics, especially from his right, may not play well in a Republican primary. “Christie too often reacts by calling his critics crazy. He goes to DefCon Five, unless the criticism comes from Democrats, in which case he considers it part of the rough-and-tumble of day-to-day politics,” McCarthy says.

A DISCIPLINED DEBATER
Might Christie’s perceived intolerance of conservative critiques and Jersey-style combativeness turn media admirers and potential voters against him? Possibly, Wehner contends, counseling Christie to make a concerted effort to step up his political discipline. “Some people may suspect that he’s hot- headed, which can be an asset or a liability, depending on the circumstance. The question is whether he’s disciplined enough to be a successful presidential candidate,” Wehner says. “Running for president for the first time is unlike anything any politician has ever experienced. Christie may say, ‘I’ve been to that rodeo,’ but he hasn’t.”

By the same token, Wehner believes, Republican voters would be well-served to give Christie a long hard look, even if they view him as ideologically heterodox. “I think it would be silly for any conservative to discount the talent he brings to the table, and what he might be able to do for the party,” he says, noting that he is a long way from picking favorites in the 2016 horserace. “There are a lot of impressive potential candidates out there, and we’ll have to wait until we see them on the stage.”

It was on the gubernatorial debate stage that Christie flashed some genuine kindness to defuse the “bully” attacks Democrats were using against him (to little effect). During an October forum, both he and opponent Barbara Buono were prodded by the moderator to say something nice about one another. Buono exploited the opportunity to take a slap at the incumbent, snarking that’s he’s “good on late night TV, just not so good in New Jersey.” The backhanded “compliment” raised cackles from some of her supporters in the audience.

But Christie turned the other cheek. “She’s obviously a good and caring mother, and someone who cares deeply about public service in this state because she’s dedicated a lot of her life to it. And while we have policy differences...I would never denigrate her service. I think we need more people who care enough about our communities to be able to stand up and do the job she’s done over the last 20 years.”

Checkmate. His answer brought the house down. Buono smiled uneasily, knowing she’d been bested. Ham says she believes that if Christie can replicate that performance and present that side of himself more often, it will help him win votes. “That debate was an instance where he overcame the bully, big guy schtick. He showed that he can be the nice guy, too. He was running against a woman, and took an opportunity not to be nasty. That really speaks to voters, especially women voters,” she says.

BORN TO RUN
If Christie intends to throw his hat into the presidential ring, as virtually everyone anticipates, the next two years will consist of striking a delicate balance: Ushering additional agenda item victories through a Democratic legislature and maintaining healthy support at home, while raising his national profile as RGA chairman. He’ll bone up on foreign policy and other issue sets, too, while continuing his weight loss regimen. The governor told CNN’s Jake Tapper in November that he’s roughly halfway toward his target weight.

If Christie can accumulate favors from strategic allies, expand his donor base, and protect his brand, he’ll be in a strong position to begin the 2016 cycle as one of his party’s frontrunners. Perhaps his tallest task will be persuading enough conservative voters in early primary states to overlook or forgive some of his policy heresies (“have you been to New Jersey?” he’ll joke) and accept him as a pragmatic conservative who knows how to lead and get things done. If he manages to hit that elusive sweet spot, Christie may convince even his doubters that, to para- phrase his musical idol, “baby, he was born to run.”


Conn Carroll

Conn Carroll is editor of Townhall Magazine.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography