As 2016 looms, Christie faces economic challenges in NJ

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Posted: Jan 12, 2015 3:22 AM
As 2016 looms, Christie faces economic challenges in NJ

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — As he casts his eye toward a potential presidential bid, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie must also take on some work at home. First up: a statewide address expected to touch on nagging economic issues that could complicate his political plans.

Observers expect Christie to use his fifth State of the State address on Tuesday to define his tenure as governor on his own terms, while not missing the chance to articulate his rationale for a potential run for president.

"I think what we'll see is him putting as positive a spin on everything he can find that's positive and speaking very broadly with an eye to a national audience," said David Redlawsk, the director of New Jersey's Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

Christie has promised new action to cut the cost of state workers' pension and benefit payments, which he says is needed despite what was hailed as a landmark reform package during his first term. Meanwhile, the state's economy continues to lag behind the rest of the region. A trust fund that pays for road and bridge repair is on the verge of bankruptcy, with Democrats pushing for an increase in the state's gas tax to fill it — likely an unpopular prospect with voters in the 2016 Republican primaries.

The speech comes as the GOP's 2016 presidential campaign is moving ahead in earnest. Last week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he would establish a political action committee that will allow him to begin raising and spending money, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hired a top operative in line to run his potential campaign. Also, the 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, on Friday told several donors that he's seriously considering jumping in a third time.

The moves have put pressure on Christie, who appears to be ramping up his own 2016 preparations. He's scheduled a meet-and-greet with potential donors in South Carolina on Wednesday, when he'll be in town to attend Gov. Nikki Haley's inauguration, and he'll return to Iowa later in the week. He's already spent time this month in Florida and Texas, on trips paid for by the New Jersey Republican State Committee.

Christie's top political adviser, Mike DuHaime, said that the governor's timeline for making his decision has not changed and that recent activity by other potential candidates plays no role in his timetable.

For all the 2016 chatter, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean said he hopes Christie will focus on the problems of his state in Tuesday's address, including laying out specific new proposals to encourage job growth.

"I think he's got to address New Jersey and not the country," said Kean, one of Christie's first political mentors.

"If you try to appeal to Republican primary voters," he said, "it's not going to be a good speech to New Jersey, because our priorities and problems are very different from what the so-called base of the party wants."

Kean said Christie's record will undoubtedly be scrutinized if he goes ahead with a White House run. Being able to boast of a New Jersey comeback, he said, is "the best boost his hopes for president could have."

In other speeches in recent months, Christie has taken pains to contrast New Jersey with the gridlock of Washington, touting what he's been able to accomplish working with New Jersey's overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature.

The speech will also give him the chance to try to move past several distractions, including the fallout from his recent appearances at Dallas Cowboy games. Christie received free tickets and private jets rides from Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, prompting questions about his sports allegiances and whether he had violated New Jersey ethics rules by accepting the gifts.

Brigid Harrison, who teaches politics at New Jersey's Montclair State University, said Christie would likely try to counter the images the public has seen of him recently, including angrily ordering a protester to "sit down and shut up."

"I think part of his mission on Tuesday is to appear presidential, to appear statesmanlike, to use the same strategy that we've seen him use a couple of times now when he's traveled outside the country," Harrison said.

She pointed to Christie's recent trips to Canada and Mexico, where he has taken on a notably more congenial tone.

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Follow Jill Colvin on Twitter at @colvinj