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Chris Christie, conservative hero?

at 10:24 AM ET, 04/21/2011

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has a big personality – even for the larger-than-life Garden State.

The first-term governor, just 15 months into his first term, has used that “speak truth to power” persona to turn himself into a major player on the national scene, becoming a bigger presence than perhaps any other governor in the country and a national conservative icon.

But lost in the shuffle about whether or not he will run for president — he probably won’t — has been a real examination of who Christie is politically. And there appears to be a significant disconnect between his image in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Recent polling shows Christie’s approval rating hovering right around 50 percent. That’s pretty good territory for a governor in today’s tough, budget-cutting times. And as a Republican governor in a blue state — which is notoriously tough on its politicians — Christie is doing well as far as the polls go.

But a closer look at the data suggests the governor’s popularity and politics are fundamentally misunderstood. While Christie is known nationally as a conservative’s conservative and the first among equals with tea party activists, that’s not really who he is.

For example, during a debate over collective bargaining rights for public unions in Wisconsin, Christie notably stopped short of supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) efforts.

He also has some more centrist tendencies on curbing illegal immigration, has gotten a handful of Democratic votes for many of his proposals and has called President Obama an “ally” on education reform. And he voted for a tax increase as a county freeholder in the 1990s and used to support abortion rights. (For some other examples, check out a conservative blog in New Jersey’s multi-part analysis of the Christie-as-conservative “myth.”)

Recent polling also suggests that Christie isn’t exactly a conservative hero in the state.

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday shows 16 percent of New Jersey Republicans disapprove of the job the governor is doing, while a new Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows 24 percent of Republicans rate the governor’s performance as “fair” or “poor.”

That Fairleigh Dickinson poll also showed 37 percent of Republicans rating Christie’s performance as “excellent,” with another 38 percent rating him “good.” So even Republicans who like the governor aren’t quite effusive.

What’s more, a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed just 16 percent of New Jerseyans rating Christie’s performance as “excellent.” Even if you figure that’s a decent-sized chunk of Republican voters, it’s not overwhelming.

Meanwhile, President Obama, who is supposed by some to have problems with his base, gets a “strong approval” from 21 percent of all voters — including 54 percent of Democrats — in the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. That’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does show that, while Christie has conservative bona fides, he is not extraordinarily popular with the base

Much of Christie’s political strength, in fact, comes from the ideological middle. Independent voters give him a 55 percent approval rating in the latest Q poll, while just 36 percent disapprove. That bodes very well for him, but it suggests his popularity — in state at least -- hinges more on the political center than the right, and that he’s actually built a pretty broad coalition of support.

Those close to Christie say that support from the middle shows the governor is more of a realist than many give him credit for.

“He is a pragmatic conservative who is interested more in results than theory,” said a source close to Christie. “On some issues, conservatives take issue with his stances.”

Christie’s team has been happy to build their boss’s national profile through TV appearances, speeches and YouTube videos. And as a national voice, Christie has been a very effective spokesman for the GOP.

As he becomes more and more of a political celebrity, though, it’s important to look at Christie in context. While he would certainly garner tea party support if he were to run for president now or in the future, he is definitely not a tea party Republican along the lines of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or many of the new Republicans elected to the House and Senate.

Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

 
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