After the huge buildup, the constant chatter, the swirling speculation that he could steamroll his way to the Republican nomination, Chris Christie said it himself: “The answer was never anything but no.”
With those words in Trenton, the New Jersey governor ended an extraordinary 10-day period defined by a palpable longing among some GOP voters searching for an alternative, and by an obsession among journalists bored with covering the candidates who actually are running.
In the wake of Christie’s funny and freewheeling news conference Tuesday, when he delighted in teasing and chiding his home-state reporters and even laughed at jokes about his weight, it’s clear why he would have been manna for the media. He is colorful, confident, and confrontational—what we used to call, in the days when print ruled, good copy. The Christie talk fueled the third-biggest week of coverage for the 2012 campaign, consuming some 15 percent of news space and airtime, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
After similar frenzies of varying intensity over Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, and others, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that reluctant noncandidates are more fascinating to the political press than those engaged in the hard slog of running.
For Christie, there was no ambiguity. “It did not feel right to me, in my gut, to leave now when the job here was not finished,” the governor said. It was always “a long shot,” and he concluded that “now is not my time.”
Of course, the former prosecutor fueled the speculative flames last week with a speech at the Reagan Library and by not shutting the door on the notion that he might barrel his way into the race. That raised his profile considerably and could boost his vice-presidential prospects, even as he scoffed at the notion of being anyone’s No. 2.
Christie’s explanation? He “felt an obligation” to reconsider his decision when “serious people across the spectrum” were urging him to jump in—along with random folks like a farmer in Nebraska who FedExed an appeal to his kids. But he kept coming back to his duties as a freshman governor: “The people sent me to Trenton to get a job done, and I’m just not prepared to walk away.”
Keep in mind that Christie spent the last year telling anyone who would listen that he felt in his heart he wasn’t ready to be president—although many journalists refused to take no for an answer. All those videotaped demurrals would have been hard to explain away. It’s worth noting that the last governor who was going to ride to the party’s rescue, according to the media drumbeat, was Rick Perry.
“When Perry started to implode, both the media and the base started to question his credibility, and that’s when we saw the rise in Christie speculation,” says GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez. “That was the one-two punch. The truth about Christie is that he’s a very strong parochial leader in New Jersey and certainly ingratiated himself with the media as a no-nonsense, call-it-as-he-sees-it style.”
Rich Galen, a onetime Newt Gingrich aide, says Perry’s stumbles in recent debates are a cautionary tale for Christie, who has held office for 20 months. “He doesn’t know enough to be president,” Galen says. “Being governor of a state is a full-time job. He hasn’t had the advantage of studying the issues. You just have to know a lot of stuff.”
Galen says Christie draws an intense spotlight in part because he works in the shadow of the nation’s biggest media market. Plus, “he’s the reporters’ kind of candidate. So is Jon Huntsman, and he hasn’t caught fire.”
John Feehery, a former spokesman for House Republicans, says it’s too late in the season for Christie to have won. But, he says, “Christie is a very attractive figure because he actually tells the truth. He’s so frank, and there’s not enough of that in politics.”
Christie says the mechanics of a late entry had nothing to do with his decision. But as his strategists looked at the obstacles of launching an organization and raising sufficient funds roughly three months before the Iowa caucuses, the reality began to seem more daunting. What’s more, much of the party’s base would have choked on Christie’s less-than-conservative positions, such as his comments that illegal immigration should not be deemed a crime and his belief in man-made global warming.
The immediate beneficiary of Christie’s move is clearly Mitt Romney, who has climbed back to the top of the polls. In a Washington Post–ABC News poll out Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor had 25 percent support among Republicans, with Perry and Herman Cain tied at 16 percent.
“A lot of people were hoping for an authentic Romney,” says Feehery. With Christie out, “then they’ll have to vote for Romney”—the real one, that is.
Romney’s slow-and-steady businessman’s approach hasn’t excited many people. Republicans “don’t want a technocratic manager,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. “They want a bold, blunt radical outsider who will take on the establishment, speak truth to power and offend the liberal news media.” That’s not Mitt. But he might still be an effective president, in Brooks’s view. With more colorful and conservative alternatives such as Perry and Michele Bachmann appearing to fall short, the question is whether what remains of the GOP establishment reluctantly rallies around Romney, as it eventually did around John McCain.
The Christie boomlet produced a media sideshow about whether he is too fat to be president, a topic he was happy to tackle on Tuesday. “I’m not particularly self-conscious about this,” said Christie, adding that he enjoyed David Letterman’s mockery of his weight. “It’s not a news flash that I’m overweight.” But he called pundits who said his waistline showed he is too undisciplined for the Oval Office “just ignorant,” saying they “further stigmatize” the plus-size population.
That may stand as Christie’s lasting contribution to the 2012 campaign debate, unless he winds up endorsing Romney. Assuming no other fantasy candidate emerges, the Republicans—and bummed-out reporters—will have to carry on without him.