CAMDEN, N.J. — Fresh off a flight from New Hampshire, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bounded toward the rain-soaked football field, shaking hands and posing for selfies with students from this mostly African American community.
“I come down here and I’m myself,” Christie said later as he paced past the end zone, near the gates where police officers patted down everyone who came to the game Friday at Camden High School. “No matter what the race or ethnicity of the person is, I don’t feel self-conscious.”
Ostensibly, the stop was a promise kept to the players, who invited Christie to a game when he visited a practice here last month. But it was also an illustration of Christie’s attempt this fall to revive and reshape his national political standing, which was hit hard by the George Washington Bridge scandal.
That incident, an act of political retribution that has ensnared his administration, remains under investigation by state and federal officials.
Seeking a path under those clouds, Christie, 52, has in recent months turned away from the fiscal battles that were the running theme of his first term and toward efforts designed to showcase the softer side of his politics, as well as his support among blacks and Hispanics. In his reelection campaign last year, Christie won 21 percent of the former’s vote and 51 percent of the latter.
His agenda at the state capitol has reflected the shift in tone, with a focus on issues that rarely lead GOP pitches, including moving drug addicts into treatment instead of jail and revamping bail laws.
The day after the game, in a speech to the state chapter of the NAACP, Christie touted a task force he has launched on drug abuse and a flurry of social policies that he has ushered to passage in the Democratic-controlled state legislature. He also spoke hopefully about a possible amendment to the state constitution on the Nov. 4 ballot that would enable judges to waive bail for the indigent in minor crimes.
“I don’t think second chances are just the domain of Democrats or Republicans,” Christie told the civil rights organizers, some of whom gave him a standing ovation. “From my perspective, we have sinners and wrongdoers aplenty in both parties.”
But at the core of Christie’s rehabilitation project, more than any policy prescription, is his supreme confidence that he can come back — that his sinking poll numbers, the state’s two credit downgrades this year and hovering prosecutors are no match for his liveliness and rapport with the blue-state voters his party craves.
Taking up residence Friday at the 10-yard line, Christie put his charms on full display as he watched the purple-clad Panthers beat Camden Catholic, 27-14.
“The differences are a lot smaller than people suspect,” Christie said in an interview at the game. “People want to know that you’re paying attention and you care. The only way to do that, as I’ve said over and over again, is to show up.”
When the marching band kicked into a Beyoncé medley, Christie roamed the sidelines — no tie and no jacket in spite of the chill — and grasped the hands of the young black men who approached him, calling each “sir.” He mingled easily with a parade of Democrats during timeouts.
State Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, 67, assured Christie that he won the governor “street cred” by “hugging you in front of everybody.”
Camden Mayor Dana Redd teased Christie about his unusual affinity — at least in the Northeast region — for the Dallas Cowboys. Her aide, Novella Hinson, plugged the local favorite, the Philadelphia Eagles.
Christie scowled, draped his right arm around Hinson’s shoulder and deadpanned, “I’d rather have my teeth drilled than listen to that awful song, ‘Fly, Eagles Fly.’ ”
After the final whistle, Christie walked toward midfield and joined the jubilant Panthers as they celebrated their victory. Defensive end Ron Johnson reminded Christie that the team remained undefeated.
“You know our record, right?” Johnson shouted.
“You had me a little nervous tonight, but you guys came through, you played hard,” Christie said as he circled the huddle and patted backs.
Afterward, Christie brushed aside the suggestion that his engagement with urban voters represented anything new. “People forget, probably because of all of the crazy stuff that’s happened over the last year, that I got 61 percent of the vote less than a year ago,” he said. “That didn’t happen by accident.”
If Christie does emerge early next year as a contender for the GOP presidential nomination, expect this self-styled reinvention as a compassionate, middle-of-the-road Republican who can expand the party’s coalition to feature prominently in his campaign.
His advisers said Christie’s message in private to social conservatives has been that he can make a strong case by blending his antiabortion views with his gubernatorial work to liberalize drug policy and change sentencing laws in ways appealing to independents.
Christie describes it as “pro-life for the whole life.”
“For our party, if we don’t make ourselves broader and more inclusive, then we have a problem,” Christie said in the interview.
Christie was quick to add that “changing core principles” is not necessary for Republicans to gain ground, pointing to his staunch opposition to legalizing marijuana and his support for the death penalty as examples where he has been pressured to tack left but hasn’t.
“We have to learn to agree to disagree, since I’m not changing my mind,” he said. “But I think people respect you if you’re upfront and talk to them about why you believe what you do.”
The recasting comes in part out of a desire to shed the swaggering, bully persona that has long enveloped him. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday shows Christie’s favorability rating falling seven points in the past two months, dropping to 42 percent this week — his lowest mark ever in the survey.
His numbers in the early campaign states have also stayed low. A Des Moines Register-Bloomberg News poll released this week showed that just 6 percent of Iowa Republicans put Christie atop their list of preferred candidates.
Potential competitors in the 2016 contest are making similar moves. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has spent much of the year bolstering his relationships with black leaders and traveled to Ferguson, Mo., last week to discuss criminal justice. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has visited city churches to meet with drug addicts and authored a poverty plan for House Republicans, while Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) has spoken about the need for Republicans to have more empathy for the less fortunate.
On the field, Christie’s operation made sure to capture the evening in high definition, with a cameraman, a staffer with a boom microphone and a photographer trailing him.
At the NAACP event Saturday in Parsippany, N.J., Christie told those in the crowd that they should expect to see him at more places in the coming year that are not traditional venues for Republicans.
“I’m like the bad relative that you invite for the holidays,” he said jokingly. “The bad relative that you don’t want there, but you invite him out of obligation. You know what happens — that person always comes, arrives first and leaves last.”
Many in the audience were leery of Christie’s motives. Deborah Gregory, president of the NAACP’s Newark branch, told her colleagues that they were being too warm toward him as he plots a White House bid.
There were more suspicions at the game. Dozens who lingered by the fence line declined to greet the governor.
“Why is he here now? Because there is another campaign that starts next year and he’s worried about Bridgegate,” said Gene Jones, 62, a Democrat and fan of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I’m going to have to really see if he’s sincere,” said Tony Burley, 54, a Camden native. “He’s got to come off that pedestal.”
Fitness trainer Joseph Wanamaker, however, said he felt he might have been meeting a future president.
Wanamaker, 26, approached Christie in the fourth quarter wearing a button on his lapel that read “Lose weight now.” He said the slimmed-down governor “looked sharp.”
“Who wouldn’t like doing this?” Christie said with a bemused smile a few minutes later after Camden scored another touchdown. He then paused as he took in the scene.
“Believe me, I’m completely cognizant of the politics of it, but it’s not the main motivation,” he said. “It’s the way I do my job and it’s good politics, too. I’m not allergic to that.”