Christie’s appeal to Republicans: His blunt, funny style

September 28, 2011

He has served in elected office for only 20 months. He has few major accomplishments as a politician. He keeps saying he doesn’t want to run for president. And in a country obsessed with fitness, he has accurately described himself as “pretty fat.”

So why can’t Republicans stop asking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president? Party strategists, policy wonks, donors and activists are all begging the former federal prosecutor to launch a last-minute candidacy, viewing him as a man who can woo tea party conservatives in a way former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney can’t, and who also has policy knowledge and debate skills that some Republicans say Texas Gov. Rick Perry lacks.

The appeal of Christie, according to Republicans, is twofold. In a state with a legislature controlled by Democrats, Christie has pushed through a series of conservative ideas to balance New Jersey’s budget: capping increases on property taxes, reducing retirement benefits for teachers and other public employees, and not raising taxes.

But what Republicans love even more is the governor’s mix of humor, bluntness and outright confrontation when he appears in public.

“He clearly does his homework and has a mastery of the issues,” said Pete Wehner, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush. “Governor Christie also comes across as blunt, no-nonsense, tough but decent.”

In his year and a half in office, Christie has turned his town hall meetings into memorable moments that Republicans around the country have watched on YouTube.

At an event last year, Christie confronted a heckler by loudly declaring, “It’s people who raise their voices and scream and yell like you who are dividing this country.” During another appearance, when a public school teacher complained to Christie about his proposals to limit increases in teacher pay, the governor replied, “Teachers go into it knowing what the pay scale is.”

Christie then told the woman that she could stop teaching if the pay was not enough.

“He has a tremendous way of communicating that makes conservatives crazy-motivated,” said Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican strategist. He added: “He is not politically correct. Political consultants would say you can’t argue in public with a teacher . . . Christie just throws caution to the wind.”

In his closely watched speech Tuesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Christie used his biggest appearance on the national stage to cast President Obama as a “bystander” in the White House, unwilling to lead.

Christie gave little sense of his broader vision on national issues. But his record as a prosecutor and a governor shows a politician like Romney and Perry: generally conservative, but with some positions that could complicate a presidential run.

Christie, who served as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, has at times offered views on immigration that could anger conservatives.

“Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” Christie said in 2008, while he was still U.S. attorney. He added, according to the Newark Star-Ledger, that “the whole phrase of ‘illegal immigrant’ connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime.”

Christie has supported gun-control laws that many Republicans do not favor; he opposed legislation that would have allowed people in New Jersey to carry concealed weapons. The governor has said he supports civil unions, which many social conservatives oppose.

“If he were to run for president, many conservatives could be surprised to learn that he may not be as philosophically pure as they think, but that happens to every candidate,” Anderson said.

And his style would be a risk, particularly among more moderate voters. He has feuded publicly with Democrats in New Jersey, who describe him as smart but say his bravado is at times over the top.

“He would be a horrible president because he has shown an inability to have a civil dialogue with people who disagree with him,” said John Wisniewski, chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

Christie’s eagerness to take on teachers’ retirement benefits and salaries has angered members of one of the more popular professions in America. Last year, the Bergen County Education Association sent its members a memo urging them to “go public” in criticizing the Republican governor.

“Dear Lord . . . this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays,” says the memo, which was obtained by the Bergen Record newspaper and not intended for public release.

It adds, “I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.”

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