In New Jersey and Across America, Chris Christie Casts A Big Shadow

The same positions that have made Christie seem like a potentially formidable general-election candidate could keep him from coming out on top in a Republican primary race. Lloyd Grove reports.

That seductive presidential siren is once again singing to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has launched his reelection campaign with a massive war chest and some of the fattest approval ratings of any politician—let alone Republican politician—in America.

A recent national poll of registered voters gave him a 55 percent favorable rating, the highest of any of the potential 2016 Republican contenders; in New Jersey, his job approval soared to 72 percent, the most stratospheric score ever recorded by a Garden State governor. This, in a blue state where President Obama beat Mitt Romney by 17 points, and registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 750,000.

The pugnacious, blunt-spoken Christie achieved pop-icon status during his first term, when he slashed the state budget to close a $2.2 billion deficit, weakened tenure protections for public-school teachers, coaxed powerful public-employee unions and their protectors in the state legislature to roll back salary hikes and benefits, and flirted with running for the 2012 GOP nomination before deciding he was “not ready.” But if he finally answers the call for 2016, the 50-year-old Christie, a Northeastern pragmatist, will be an outlier in a GOP that has been dominated by Southern conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and Tea Party ideologues.

Christie’s furious thrashing of Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans last week, using terms like “disgusting,” “callous indifference,” and “duplicity” to describe their delay in federal relief money for the victims of superstorm Sandy, did little to endear him to the true believers who disproportionately influence the party’s nominating process. Ditto his effusive praise of Obama on the eve of the November election and his cancellation of campaign appearances with Romney in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

In addition, Christie’s deviations from party orthodoxy have included his support for comprehensive immigration reform and stricter gun control, his belief in the contribution of human activity to global warming and the need to pursue green energy over oil drilling, and his warning to fellow Republicans against Muslim bashing during the 2010 Ground Zero mosque debate. All of which could make for a formidable general-election candidate, but creates roadblocks in a Republican primary race.

“It’s not a glass ceiling, it’s an iron ceiling,” says New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He’s the perfect conservative Democrat. He’s a lousy conservative Republican.”

But a second New York consultant, Jimmy Siegel, argues that Christie can break through. “He’s an interesting, charismatic figure, sort of a lowbrow reality-show star, the political version of Jersey Shore—and he’s getting good ratings,” Siegel says. “The fact that he’s taking on his own party doesn’t necessarily mean that the Republicans will hold that against him.”

Former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee in 2010, when his party took back the House, agrees. “Could he win? Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes!” says Steele, who includes Christie in a group of “21st-century conservatives” that also includes Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I think Christie could be one of the bright stars for us who will go through what should be a tough, grueling primary process,” Steele says. “And if in the course of that process, he’s allowed to express those values and principles of our party that may look and sound a little different to some people. That would be a good thing.”

Yet some compare the Christie surge to that of Rudy Giuliani, another Northeastern moderate who led early polls in the 2008 campaign, but whose candidacy quickly fizzled once the primaries got underway. Indeed, veteran Republican operative Mike DuHaime, who managed Giuliani’s ill-fated effort, is Christie’s chief political strategist.

DuHaime insists that Christie is not as estranged from the GOP mainstream as some folks would have it. “I would say he’s got strong relationships with the party,” DuHaime tells The Daily Beast. “He gave the keynote speech at Republican convention, and he’s in line to become chairman of the Republican Governors Association next time around,” when Bobby Jindal’s term ends in 2014. “He helped in a lot of House races around the country, campaigned very hard with Gov. Romney, and is one of the more sought-after figures in the party, along with [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker, [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio and [Romney running mate] Paul Ryan.”

And unlike America’s Mayor, Christie opposes abortion rights with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother; has been married just once; never bunked with a gay couple when his second marriage was on the skids (indeed, Christie vetoed New Jersey’s gay-marriage bill, though he favors civil unions); enjoys a warm relationship with his children; and never appeared on stage in a dress. Probably a wise choice, given Christie’s physique.

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“If I could figure that out, I’d fix it,” he told Barbara Walters last month for her 10 Most Fascinating People of 2012 special, when she asked about his weight problem. But he dismissed the idea that health concerns should bar him from higher office. “That’s ridiculous,” he said.

Running for president would be physically taxing on anyone.

“It is clear he has captured the imagination of the country,” says Newark attorney Jerold Zaro, who befriended Christie more than a decade ago, years before President Bush appointed Christie U.S. attorney, when the future governor was a lawyer in private practice, unsuccessful candidate for local office, and Republican activist. The two are rabid Bruce Springsteen fans and have attended eight of his concerts together here and once in Paris. “Chris has been governor for a very short period, and yet when I travel abroad, people are always asking me about this fella Chris Christie ... He’s different. He speaks the truth, says what he believes, and it all comes from conviction. What’s resonated with people is he says what he feels, and what he feels is connecting with a vein of common sentiment.”

Zaro, chief of New Jersey’s office of economic growth under both Christie and Jon Corzine, the Democratic governor Christie defeated in 2009, is himself a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and voted for Obama this election and last. But in 2016 he hopes to vote for Christie. “He is what this country is crying out for—somebody who grasps the big-picture issues, can rally great numbers of people behind him, and be that uniter, pulling Democrats and Republicans. I’ll be with him wherever he goes.”

Yet these days Christie insists that he’s single-mindedly dedicated to his current job and nursing no higher ambitions. “I don’t know what I’ll feel like in 2016,” he told Walters. “First things first. First things first is to finish the job I have here.”

Close associates of Christie faithfully repeat the mantra. As New Jersey politico Bill Palatucci—Christie’s chief fundraiser, good friend, and former law partner—tells The Daily Beast: “He’s just doing his job and politically focused on his reelection in November 2013, and that’s about as far as it goes.”

Christie—who so far has drawn Democratic opposition only from a little-known state senator—has raised $2.1 million, which under New Jersey’s extraordinarily generous public-financing formula will give him $5 million to spend during the primary campaign. What about the governor’s White House prospects? “I’m just not gonna go there,” Palatucci says. “That’s fun parlor-game stuff that we don’t have the luxury to engage in. It’s about taking care of business today, and the future will be there when we get there. I’ve got a reelection campaign to fund.”

All of which amounts to a routine political trope—one that’s often understood to mean the opposite of what it says. It is, in any case, hardly a slam of the door, and certainly not the categorical declaration of non–presidential candidacy that a certain politician vouchsafed to the late Tim Russert on the Jan. 22, 2006, installment of Meet the Press. “I will not,” the politician vowed.

That politician was Barack Obama.