By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 11:26 PM
WILLIAMSPORT, PA. - You could describe him as a burly guy who has declared "I'm pretty fat" from a state better known for Tony Soprano and Snooki than its politicians. Or a man so fiery that he confronted a heckler at a recent event, wagged his finger in his face and said, "It's people who raise their voices and scream and yell like you who are dividing this country."
Or someone so reviled by teachers unions that representatives in New Jersey signed a memo that included a humorous reference to praying for his death.
But only a year into office, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also emerged as one of the most popular figures in the Republican Party, a blunt-talking governor who unabashedly attacks unions and Democratic groups, cuts spending, blocks tax increases and runs his relatively liberal state in a conservative mold.
Christie has grabbed the attention of some influential national Republicans who say his battles with New Jersey Democrats offer a model for taking on President Obama if they win control of one or both houses of Congress next week.
In Trenton, Christie has done what Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail are promising: to cut spending to reduce the budget deficit. And he has made the cuts in spite of Democrats' criticism that he is destroying popular and important programs.
This year, when New Jersey Democrats proposed a tax surcharge on income above $1 million, the state faced a possible government shutdown if Christie did not relent.
"I said: 'Listen, you can close down the government if you want, but if you do it, don't think I'm moving some cot into the governor's office,'" he said in Williamsport, where he was helping out Pennsylvania Republicans. "I'm going to get in those black suburbans, I'm going to go back to the governor's residence, I'm going to go upstairs, I'm going to order a pizza, I'm going to open a beer, and I'm going to watch the Mets." (His predecessor moved a cot into the governor's office during a government shutdown.)
He added, "so what happened? They sent me that tax increase, I vetoed it, immediately, within the first 30 seconds they handed it to me, I handed it right back to them. And then they passed my budget."
After a months-long fight, Democrats in New Jersey reluctantly agreed in June to a $29.3 billion budget, along the lines of what Christie had proposed, that included $800 million in cuts to education and eliminated or reduced the funding of dozens of programs and agencies.
Democrats sharply criticized Christie for not approving a tax increase that could have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. And the budget is hardly the conservative panacea that Christie has cast it as. The budget was balanced by deferring $3 billion the government was to pay into its state pension system and eliminated a tax rebate homeowners were supposed to receive.
But Republicans in Washington and nationally were nevertheless impressed with Christie's approach.
"He's doing what needs to done and he's just being extremely candid about it," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), one of the leading conservative voices in Congress. "He's taking on the structural problems and the entrenched interests that you have to take on if you're going to save our states, save our systems."
In Washington, even as they have blasted President Obama and Democrats for increasing the deficit, Republicans in Congress have been vague about how they would cut spending. The recently-released GOP "Pledge to America" proposes to cut about $100 billion, despite a current federal budget deficit of more than $1 trillion. And Republicans did not say specifically how they would cut even $100 billion.
But if they win control of Congress, they will face real pressure to make cuts not just from tea party activists but also the burly governor from New Jersey.
Last month, House Republicans invited Christie to a closed-door strategy meeting. He praised them for opposing some of Obama's initiatives and predicted that they would be awarded by the voters. But he added a blunt warning.
"This is put up or shut up time," he said, according to officials at the meeting. "If we don't do what we promise to do, then we will be sent to the wilderness for a long time."
"I said, 'I'm rooting for you guys, and I want you to win control of the House again,' but I said, 'You better do what you said you're going to do,' " Christie said in an interview. "They have to show progress. They have to show [the deficit] moving down. [Voters] want to see you making steady, consistent progress towards bringing us to fiscal sanity."
Even as Christie dispenses advice for the GOP, much of his agenda remains undone. He is now campaigning around New Jersey on a series of proposals to reduce state spending by capping the size of the government and curbing increases in pay to state employees. Little progress has been made in the state legislature on a proposal to make it harder for teachers to get tenure and another to adopt pay scales that reward teachers when their students do better on standardized tests.
Christie has not permanently fixed the state's budget problem. And Democrats in New Jersey say his bravado leads him into blunders. His aides bungled the state's application to the federal Race to the Top education program, costing New Jersey a potential $400 million in federal funds. Christie at first blasted Department of Education officials in Washington and then admitted his administration was at fault.
He is under fire from Democrats and the Obama administration for opposing a project to build a new tunnel that would increase the number of trains that could travel between New York and New Jersey. His critics say the $9 billion project would create jobs and help residents get to work, but Christie blasted the project for exceeding cost estimates.
The governor's approach has divided the state along partisan lines: 79 percent of Republicans view him favorably; 62 percent of Democrats view him unfavorably, according to a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll. Overall, 46 percent of voters in New Jersey view Christie favorably, 42 percent do not.
"It's a very pugilistic style," said John Wisniewski, a state General Assembly member and chairman of the state's Democratic party. "He misses no opportunity to ridicule the legislature, ridicule public employees, ridicule teachers. The bully at the pulpit can capture imaginations for only so long and then the inability to achieve consensus is what this governor's tenure will be known for."
Christie isn't just blunt with people in his own state.
Last month, appearing with GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in California, he blasted a heckler for "dividing this country." The crowd at the event loudly cheered, and the video was widely circulated among conservatives.
Even more than his policies, Christie nationally has become known for YouTube videos that show his tough talk, which delights conservative activists.
Activists have started a site urging Christie to run for president, and he won the presidential straw poll of the Virginia tea party this month, beating out Sarah Palin and tea party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) (Activists were not allowed to select candidates from Virginia.)
When Christie went to Connecticut recently, the GOP gubernatorial candidate there, Tom Foley, said, "I want to be the Chris Christie of Connecticut."
So far, Christie does not want to be the Chris Christie of America. He has played down presidential speculation and last week ruled out running as vice president. Instead, he said, he wants to use his tenure to show Republicans in Washington and in states nationwide that a direct conservative style can both balance the budget and win elections.
"You can do these things," he said, referring to spending cuts. "And while they are politically unpopular in some quarters, each individual cut, the direction you are moving in, as long as people think it's fair and shared sacrifice, they are going to support you."