Every time Gov. Chris Christie plays another round of smash-mouth politics with New Jersey’s public-sector unions, conservative voters across the country lead the cheers.
“When he speaks to the unions and the other parasitic special-interest groups ripping off the taxpayers, you want to applaud,” said Mark Kevin Lloyd, chairman of the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation. “Think about the first time you heard [Clint] Eastwood say, ‘So, you feel lucky, punk? Go ahead — make my day.’ Remember how everyone cheered?”
A poll finds that Republicans and independents have warmed quickly to the governor’s in-your-face style with teachers unions, state government workers, police and firefighters — so much so that they propelled him to the front among possible GOP presidential nomination contenders in 2012 despite Mr. Christie’s frequent assertions that he won’t run.
Yet many of those admirers say they know little else about the governor.
“Christie’s popularity among conservatives and others is a tribute to his image as a straight-talking guy taking on the No. 1 problem the nation and various states face,” said David A. Keene, a former chairman of the American Conservative Union.
“Does this make him a conservative? Not necessarily, but it makes him a realist who stands out as very different from most elected officials and, because of his willingness to stand up to entrenched interests in a quasi-liberal state, it makes him a man of courage and an enemy of the left on the primary issue of this decade.”
While giving a highly anticipated policy speech in Washington last week, Mr. Christie, 48, won approving nods from Republicans, independents, tea party activists and even some Democrats by threatening to campaign for primary opponents of Republicans in Congress who don’t go to the mat in the battle to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending.
That threat included the tea-party-backed freshmen for whom he campaigned last year.
Barely more than a year into his governorship, Mr. Christie attracted enough national attention to place first among GOP contenders in a Zogby presidential preference poll last month, backed by 27 percent of likely voters. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a national figure for decades, placed second with 17 percent, followed by Sarah Palin at 18 percent and Mike Huckabee at 17 percent. The rest of the potential GOP candidates placed in single digits in the poll of 2,073 likely voters.
Mr. Christie was also the only Republican in the poll to beat President Obama in a head-to-head matchup, by a 43 percent to 41 percent margin.
That doesn’t mean a Christie campaign wouldn’t face questions within the party.
Mr. Christie is not the hard-liner on abortion that some pro-lifers prefer, though he says he wants to outlaw partial-birth abortion and require parental notification for minors and a 24-hour waiting period for women considering the procedure.
“He’s very strong on fiscal issues,” said Jeff Frederick, a former Virginia GOP chairman. “In fact, I can’t think of someone with better fiscal conservative bona fides on the national scene right now.”
However, Mr. Frederick said that Mr. Christie “is very weak on the social issues and doesn’t seem too interested in at least getting along with the social conservatives, or at least not at this point.”
Mr. Lloyd, the Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation chairman, said Mr. Christie’s “appeal doesn’t come from strict adherence to the dogma of the social right but rather from understanding the math — bringing sensible kitchen-table fiscal policy to government.”
As a former prosecutor, Mr. Christie supports strict enforcement of his state’s gun laws but is vague on whether to back a right to carry a concealed weapon for self-protection. He sends his children to Catholic schools and supports tax credits to parents who send their children to private or religious schools.
Conservatives, who are divided on foreign policy, say they have little insight into Mr. Christie’s views on the subject.
But what the political right does know about Mr. Christie, it likes — for the most part.
“I’d have to say he’s certainly governed like a conservative but, more importantly, he’s communicated to the public like a conservative,” said Chuck Muth, a former Nevada GOP executive director. “Even though he might not always be as pure as many conservatives would like on all issues, I think he’ll get a pass from most because they recognize that he’s at least out there preaching the conservative gospel in an effective way.”
Mr. Christie, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, jokes about his own paunchiness. But, unlike Mr. Barbour, Mr. Christie appears adamant against a presidential run next year.
“Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running. I’m not running,” he joked last week when he left his state budget wars long enough to give a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. However, running scenarios about Mr. Christie and 2012 has become an almost irresistible pastime among political pros.
“I always liked the thought of a Chris Christie-Haley Barbour ticket with the slogan, ‘Vote for the heavyweights, not the lightweight,’” said GOP campaign pollster John McLaughlin.
But the demands of a presidential race and of minding New Jersey’s government — his first term runs through 2013 — seem to be mutually exclusive for Mr. Christie this year.
Mr. McLaughlin said it is likely that if Mr. Christie balances New Jersey’s books by spending cuts and not tax increases, he’ll win re-election in 2013 and become an “automatic” candidate for 2016.
“If Christie tries to run now, while the state still has significant budget problems with public-employee union opposition, economic development deals to be worked on with the Meadowlands and Atlantic City, canceling multibillion-dollar tunnels with New York, not to mention state legislative elections in New Jersey this year,” said Mr. McLaughlin, “the chances are neither his state fiscal crusade nor his presidential nomination quest will go well.”
But Mr. Zogby said a Christie run next year would be a boon to the GOP.
“Christie’s blunt talk about public employees and his aggressive actions on the New Jersey state budget have made him very popular both within the Republican Party and with independents,” Mr. Zogby said in his poll analysis. “His style and appearance would present quite the contrast to that of the president. He adds not only an alternative governing philosophy, but also real efforts at cutting spending. If he decided to run, Christie could quickly oust Romney as the favorite of establishment Republicans.”
What voters of all stripes like is that he can be tough and funny at the same time.
“Pension and benefits are the equivalent of entitlements at the national level,” he said in pushing for raising the Social Security retirement age and bringing Medicaid benefits into line with fiscal reality. He slams Democratic and GOP lawmakers for ducking these positions as too hazardous for one’s political health.
“Oh, I just said that, and I’m still standing here. I didn’t vaporize into the carpet,” Mr. Christie told the packed American Enterprise Institute gathering last week, getting the laugh he wanted.