February 26, 2013

As its name might suggest, the Conservative Political Action Conference is one of the year’s largest conservative gatherings — it showcases high profile activists, prominent politicians, and rising stars in the Republican Party — and this year’s CPAC will not be any different. Mitt Romney will give a speech—his first since November—and audiences will hear from Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and other emerging leaders in the party.

But as ABC News notes this morning, this year’s CPAC will have a hole in the line-up: Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, has not been invited to speak at CPAC, despite his massive popularity (he has a 73 percent approval rating) and growing national appeal. Here’s the report:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is “not being invited” to CPAC, according to a source close to the event who was not authorized to speak publicly. The source would not answer why Christie, who is widely thought to be interested in the 2016 presidential race, would not be invited to the confab of conservative activists.

There’s still some time before the conference, so this may not stand. But if it does, it’s not hard to see why conservative activists made the decision. Just a week before the presidential election, Christie praised President Obama for his handling of Hurricane Sandy — angering the Romney campaign — and last month, he criticized the Republican leadership for holding up Hurricane Sandy aid. At the moment, he seems more interested in protecting the Chris Christie brand — and thus securing another term as governor — than he is in furthering Republican Party goals.

For now, as a red governor in a blue state, this is a smart play. But if Christie is interested in the 2016 Republican nomination, he’ll have to back away from his current persona. As it stands, Christie’s ability to speak for the GOP is hampered by his place on the ideological spectrum—he’s much more liberal than the median Republican member of the House, and substantially more liberal than a Republican base voter. To have any chance at winning the nomination, he’ll have to abandon previous views, renounce earlier statements, and position himself as a mainstream conservative. And indeed, as a recent story from the New York Daily News shows, he’s aware of this:

Bulman said that when he told Christie he is from upstate New York, the conservative governor replied: “I’m not much different from Andrew Cuomo. I probably agree with him on 98 percent of the issues.” [...]

But during a press conference on Tuesday, Christie said he was misunderstood. “What I said was that Governor Cuomo and I were raised in very much the same kind of households. Governor Cuomo was raised by a Sicilian mother and so was I. And so that a lot of our values are the same,” Christie said. “I don’t ever remember saying anything like I agree with him 98 percent of the time because I don’t. So I’m sure I didn’t say that.”

The key thing to remember is that the Chris Christie who serves as governor of New Jersey won’t be the Chris Christie who runs for the Republican presidential nomination. That Christie will have to satisfy the demands of the GOP base, and as such, he’ll have to be much more conservative, and much more amenable to the kinds of people who organize and attend CPAC.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.