WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — A man claiming to be the brash-talking governor of New Jersey showed up at a gathering of Republicans here this week and spoke quietly about his record and his priorities — cutting government, keeping the nation safe and, if necessary, working with Democrats.
Gone were the bluster and bravado that have made Chris Christie a long-touted contender for the White House. The new Chris Christie was serious, earnest, calmly gesturing as he spoke — hoping to reach the kind of moderate, business-friendly Republican voters he will need if he is to compete in Iowa and eventually take the GOP presidential nomination.
“I’m not too blunt and too direct to be in Iowa or any place else in this country,” Christie assured the well-dressed Republicans, who paid $25 per ticket. “I know there are times you may see or read something that I’ve said and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I cannot believe he said that out loud.’ ”
The reception to Christie’s soft pitch, however, was decidedly mixed.
He “seemed a little flat,” Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, said in a blog post afterward. “. . . I couldn’t shake the fact that the guy speaking to a room of 60 people in West Des Moines was the same guy who provided the keynote address for the 2012 Republican National Convention.”
This is one of the central challenges facing Christie, who just a week earlier was making waves in London by questioning the necessity of mandatory vaccinations and barking down reporters for asking questions. At the last GOP convention, he garnered accolades and howls for a self-aggrandizing speech focused on his accomplishments and his tough persona.
But that version of Christie is less attractive amid New Jersey’s credit downgrades, a traffic scandal and other troubles in Trenton. Christie now finds himself lagging behind the potential 2016 pack in surveys of Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire, which begin the nominating process next year.
So in a windowless conference room in a suburban Marriott here Monday night, Christie set out to provide a sober, understated rationale for his likely candidacy. He told the audience that his record stacks up well against those of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other GOP hopefuls, pointing in particular to his ability to negotiate with a Democratic legislature in a Democratic state.
“I don’t think there are a lot of governments across this country that will be able to tell you that they’re actually spending less than they did seven years ago,” Christie said. He added later for the Iowa guests that he had taken on New Jersey lawmakers who tried to ban gestational crates for pigs, “yet we produce almost no pork.”
“If that doesn’t prepare you for the craziness of Washington, D.C., I don’t know what would,” Christie said as the crowd chuckled.
Many attendees said they first heard of Christie when he was battling teachers unions in 2010, during his first gubernatorial term, and learned about him mostly through YouTube videos of combative town hall meetings that made him, for a period, one of the conservative movement’s leading lights.
What drew them to Christie at the time wasn’t so much the details of his gubernatorial record but the forceful way he articulated his vision. His unapologetic bombast in a party dominated by stiff suits was the draw.
That approach has been shelved. Unlike some Christie events in New Jersey, where promotional videos with pulsing soundtracks play before he roams onstage with Bruce Springsteen-like swagger, Christie’s stagecraft here was bare-bones, with only a glass of water, a lectern and a brief introduction.
Christie stuck to a muted mien during his 40-minute presentation, dutifully listing a range of what he considers to be his most notable achievements, from reducing the number of state employees to capping state property taxes.
Heads nodded respectfully throughout, but the applause was sporadic. The biggest round of clapping came for a barb about President Obama being “a man in a dark room struggling up against the wall, looking for the light switch of leadership.”
Some in the crowd appreciated the tact. Miriam Fox, 47, a neurology technician at a Des Moines hospital, said that “it was exactly the right tone. He was respectful of the audience, of Iowa.”
Christie carefully played up his middle-class roots — a point of contrast with recent controversies over his embrace of wealthy Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and a New York Times report on his penchant for private planes and luxe hotels.
“I have an Irish father, and I had a Sicilian mother,” he said. “Now, what this means is, from a very young age, I became adept at conflict resolution.”
Christie also cited his broadly hawkish views on foreign affairs.
“Global terrorism and radical Islam is not a theory to me,” said Christie, a former federal prosecutor. He said the United States needs to be more aggressive in countering threats, though that doesn’t necessarily mean placing “boots on the ground.”
On Common Core, a set of national education standards opposed by many conservatives, Christie said he has “grave concerns” and has asked state officials to “reexamine” its use in New Jersey’s public schools.
The picture Christie painted of his budgetary triumphs stands in sharp contrast with political reality back in New Jersey. Garden State unions continue to contest his policies in court, and Moody’s Investors Service says the state faces $83 billion in unfunded pension liabilities.
Members of Christie’s political team — including confidant William Palatucci, who watched Christie on Monday from the back of the room — know that the pressure on them to get traction in a field likely to feature a number of self-styled “conservative reformers” is growing by the day.
Last month at a conservative summit in Des Moines, Walker gave a breakout speech that championed his battles with public unions in Wisconsin over collective-bargaining rights. Bush, in a soon-to-be-published e-book, will showcase his push to revamp Florida’s state government.
Christie, who also spoke at that Jan. 24 tea party conclave, was low-key there as well, eschewing red-meat overtures as he talked up his antiabortion position and his state’s programs to assist those dealing with drug addiction.
He met earlier Monday with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), who reminded Christie that he has traveled to Iowa 13 times since 2010, often to raise money for Branstad, who was elected to a sixth term last year. Christie will return next month for an agricultural policy summit in Des Moines.
After his remarks, Christie shook hands for about five minutes before telling organizers he had a flight to catch.
“I have no reluctance about being here,” Christie said before ducking into a waiting SUV. “I like Iowa a lot. I’ve always done very well here in terms of the reception I’ve gotten. We’ll see what happens.”