When a lighthearted Chris Christie faced the attendees at CPAC late Thursday morning, it felt almost as though Bridgegate was just a bad dream.
The New Jersey governor arrived on stage nearly an hour late. The crowd rose to greet him as Christie first stepped to the podium and it again rose to cheer him after his brief speech, which touched on topics ranging from public unions to his own pro-life beliefs. He did not, predictably, address the scandal which has threatened to bring his political career to a premature end.
Christie, his skin bronze, smiled broadly as he spoke, often drawing laughs, and frequently causing the crowd to erupt in applause.
He began his talk with the usual: boasting about his pension fight. “As you can imagine,” he smirked, “I was extraordinarily popular with the public employee unions.” But the deep red crowd permitted the governor to abandon his normal spiel in favor of talking party ideology, which he rarely gets the opportunity to do in blue Jersey.
"We’ve got to start talking about what we’re for, and not what we’re against,” he advised the audience, which cheered. Christie, who is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, praised the work of GOP governors in Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, and Ohio to the practically hyperventilating crowd. “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”
Christie took a powerful swing at Democrats when the talk turned to his opinion on abortion. “Tell me the last pro-life Democrat who was allowed to speak at a Democratic convention,” he said. “They’re the party of intolerance, not us.”
The governor then fired squarely at President Obama on income inequality. “We don’t need, Mr. President, your opinion on what income inequality is. We don’t have an income inequality problem. We have an opportunity problem.”
Wheeling a suitcase through a mass of conservatives after his speech was one of Christie’s top political advisers, Mike DuHaime. He told me he was very pleased with the response to Christie. “I thought it was a great reaction. I thought [the speech] went over really well…I was happy to see a standing ovation at the end.” DuHaime wouldn’t say whether or not the positive reaction had him thinking about a possible Christie presidential campaign. “I’m worried about 2014. I know everybody else wants to talk about 2016.”
DuHaime had cause to be so happy. A warm reception for Christie was not a given at CPAC.
Last year, the controversial Republican was not invited to the event, after infuriating the GOP with his “bipartisan embrace” of Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy (and just before the presidential election). Many Republicans went as far as to blame Christie for Mitt Romney’s loss. Laura Ingraham suggested he switch parties. Ann Coulter told CPAC’s crowd Christie was “off my list.”
Outside the CPAC ballroom today, a single protester named John Bloom became a topic of much interest for encouraging the event’s attendees to walk out during Christie’s speech. “I call him Governor Traffic Jam,” Bloom told me. “If you believe the media, he’s abused power with the bridge fiasco…or, if you believe him, he’s ignorant of what his administration is doing!” Bloom’s goal, he said, is to “restore integrity” to the Republican Party. “Chris Christie is not integrity.”
But what’s causing Christie trouble in his home state may be making him fans among many conservatives. In the months since the scandal involving lane closures on the George Washington Bridge became one of the biggest political stories in the country, the liberal media has kept a target on his back. The death of Christie’s political career would be, in part, a victory for a place like MSNBC, which has devoted so much time to covering every little detail and conspiracy of Bridgegate.
The conservatives applauding Christie at CPAC weren’t just applauding another Republican governor, they were applauding the newest enemy of the liberal media.