Big guy with big ambition

By Peter Huck

Public laps up bipartisan politics of straight-talking New Jersey governor

Chris Christie's embrace of Barack Obama was seen as treason by some members of his party.

These are heady times for New Jersey's rotund governor, Chris Christie. This month, a state poll gave him 73 per cent support, suggesting the Republican's pugnacious, loose-cannon style - giving his own party stick while reaching out to Democrats - resonates with voters sick of Washington gridlock.

His image was given a huge fillip by Hurricane Sandy, when Christie publicly embraced Barack Obama, neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Mitt Romney on the eve of the national election, to thank the president for helping the Garden State, reeling from its worst natural disaster in more than a century.

"It's hard to find such a well-liked political figure in this politically rancorous day and age," the poll's executive director Krista Jenkins told the Star-Ledger. All of which is gratifying for a politician facing re-election in this year's state gubernatorial race. But Christie is not just a state player. The keynote speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the governor is regarded as a potential White House candidate.

So far the governor has been coy. Nonetheless, it was notable at the RNC that Christie hardly gave a ringing endorsement to Mitt Romney.

Instead, say critics, Christie shamelessly burnished his image as a man who tells hard truths just like his idol, New Jersey's other boss, Bruce Springsteen.

As Republican candidates slogged through last year' primaries, Politico reported Christie, a "straight-talking, hard-charging, in-your-face guy" who could help lock in working-class votes, was Romney's first choice as a running mate. Christie ended a flirtation with a White House run in October 2011 - "now is not my time", he said, leaving the door tantalisingly open - and endorsed Romney. Talk of a Romney-Christie ticket fell over, maybe because Christie's outsized personality overshadowed Romney. Shrewder minds speculate Christie has his eye on the long game, a presidential run in 2016.

Meanwhile, Christie will seek a second term in this year's New Jersey gubernatorial race. As for long-term plans, his political adviser, Mike DuHaime, says Christie is "taking it one step at a time right now".

The media focus on Christie is arguably less about his future - Senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and Congressman Paul Ryan are also GOP presidential prospects - than the future of his dysfunctional party.

According to Politico, polls show 52 per cent approve of Obama's performance, 26 per cent rate the GOP and 9 per cent rate the Tea Party. In hard times Americans want government that delivers. Christie's popularity in New Jersey, which Obama won by 18 points, and ability to work with a Democratic-controlled legislature is a clue to where the Grand Old Party must go if it hopes to crawl out of the ideological hole the Tea Party dug. Christie's common touch helps; fans relish a heated exchange on the New Jersey shore, posted on YouTube, where the icecream-toting governor advances on a man, telling him, "you're a real big shot ... keep walking away".

But DuHaime says Christie's willingness to compromise is crucial. Policies such as tax reform, one of the governor's conservative policy planks, got bipartisan votes says DuHaime. "He has been able to do that only because he's been willing to cross party lines since the day he got elected."

It is a theme the governor pushed in this month's State of the Union speech.

"Now, we've had our fights. We have stuck to our principles. But we have established a governing model for America that shows that, even with heartfelt beliefs, bipartisan compromise is possible. ... Maybe the folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here."

DuHaime says his boss is "pragmatic", a quality missing in Washington, where the Tea Party's uncompromising ideology has lead to gridlock. "Can Chris Christie rescue the GOP?" the Washington Post asked as the party's popularity plummets. Not right now. Christie is viewed as a traitor by the party's far right, who blame him for helping Obama over the finish line.

Since then Christie has chided the GOP-controlled House of Representatives for dragging its feet on a $60 billion Sandy aid package, and castigated the National Rifle Association as "reprehensible" for a TV ad that accused Obama of hypocrisy because his family is protected by armed Secret Service agents.

Given Washington's timidity towards the NRA, it was a bold move and far-right zealots blasted Christie. "I think criticising the Second Amendment movement and the over-the-top 'give me my money' stuff, 'I want all $60 billion now or I'll throw a tantrum', I don't think that's going to play well in the Republican primary," Rand Paul sniped on The Laura Ingraham Show.

Nor did it help when Christie said more taxes, anathema to the GOP, may be needed for the Sandy clean-up as "there is no magic money tree".

Alienating powerful lobbies, media pundits and your own party is not the usual election strategy. "Christie has big burdens in seeking the 2016 nomination," says Larry Sabato, director of the Centre for Politics at Virginia University. "It will be a giant surprise if Republicans overlook Christie's boost to Obama at a critical moment, or his moderate positions on abortion, guns, and other things. He has a steep mountain to climb."

So has his party. Christie's moment coincides with a low ebb in the GOP's fortunes. The presidential election left Republicans staring at a stark, and so far unpalatable, truth: Obama won because he was able to mobilise a base - minorities, young people and women - that has recoiled from the far right.

It is a constituency the GOP, reliant on a shrinking base of conservative white males, must capture to remain viable as a national party. Writing in the Weekly Standard this week, editor Bill Kristol said the Republican defeat provided an opportunity "for clear speech and clear proposals".

Kristol was vague about how his party might appeal to America's shifting demographics, which are trending left.

Christie's image as a man who speaks truth may evoke the Mr Smith Goes to Washington chestnut. But his ability to reach across the aisle and hammer out compromise, crucial to democracy, should be a reality check for any Republican with an eye on the White House.

Chris Christie

• Age 50
• Married, four children
• Dubbed "The Boss" by Time magazine. Criticised right-wingers who attacked his appointment of a Muslim to the New Jersey Supreme Court by declaring that he is "tired of dealing with the crazies". Pro-life, but insists he would not use the governorship to "force his views down people's throats".
• Asked by Barbara Walters whether he was too heavy to be president, Christie called the question "ridiculous," touting his 18-hour days responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy response as evidence he's up for the job.

- NZ Herald

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