- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2013

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — It may well be remembered as the embrace that built a presidential campaign.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s warm welcome of President Obama last year, in the midst of early efforts to recover from Superstorm Sandy, hurt the Republican governor with some conservatives, but polls show it has been a resounding success in his state, which has received billions of dollars in federal aid and where he is poised to win re-election next week.

“The evidence is incontrovertible that Sandy is what really put this in the bag for Chris Christie,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “He was already going to be a formidable opponent to bring down, but when Sandy hit, forget about it.”

On Tuesday, the first anniversary of the storm’s landfall in New Jersey, Mr. Christie will hold 10 events across the state to take stock of the rebuilding. On Wednesday, he kicks off a weeklong New Jersey bus tour as he looks to the Nov. 5 election.

On a national scale, some Republicans are looking to Mr. Christie for a model of how they might win the White House in 2016.

Indeed, while Republicans in Washington struggle to learn the lessons of the party’s post-2012 defeat, Mr. Christie appears to have made inroads with all of the constituencies that the 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, failed to reach.

“I think Chris Christie appeals to precisely those constituencies that the Republican Party’s report indicate we need to do much better with: That is women, young people, and that is minorities,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a top Republican fundraiser. “He also, which is equally important, speaks to men and older people. His genius is that he cuts across all political spectrums. Everyone can relate to Chris Christie.”

Before the storm, Mr. Christie had a favorability rating of 48 percent positive to 42 percent negative, for a plus-6 percentage point rating. Just 22 percent of New Jersey Democrats, 43 percent of women and 22 percent of blacks in the state rated him favorably.

Now, his net favorability is plus-33 percentage points, and 38 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of women and 51 percent of nonwhite voters rate him favorably. He also is performing well among 18- to 39-year-olds, who give him a 60 percent favorable rating.

More striking is that New Jersey voters still disapprove of him on his handling of key issues such as taxes and the economy, but when it comes to Superstorm Sandy recovery, he receives an 85 percent approval in surveys from the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

“His general favorability and approval ratings have all gone up even though people don’t like what he has done on things like the economy and taxes,” said David P. Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center.

Shaquille O’Neal, a Newark native and retired National Basketball Association all-star, helped Mr. Christie’s cause over the weekend by declaring in a television ad, “I don’t endorse many politicians, but Chris Christie is different.”

“He’s a good man,” Mr. O’Neal said in the ad, where he compliments Mr. Christie’s education and jobs agenda. “Excuse me, he’s a great man. Please join me in supporting Chris Christie — the governor.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said Superstorm Sandy has helped hide Mr. Christie’s policy missteps and the blemishes on his record, and makes him appear more bipartisan than he really is.

“In the beginning, he came off looking really great as a strong leader, but about a year later he is refusing to answer questions and the administration is not helping people who are still out of their homes. Going on “Letterman” and eating a doughnut is great theater, but there are still 20,000 to 30,000 that don’t have homes,” Mr. Tittel said, alluding to Mr. Christie’s appearance this year on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman.” “Most people down the shore are angry.”

If he wins re-election by a convincing margin, Mr. Christie will solidify his case that he should be part of any 2016 presidential conversations.

“There is no gender gap in our polls, there is a good chance he will win Hispanics and he will get a good chunk of African-Americans,” Mr. Murray said. “This is exactly the kind of candidate that Republican leadership is looking for in a party that can’t survive on white men alone.”

Still to be seen, however, is whether Republican voters in early primary and caucus states take to the tough-talking governor.

Some Republican leaders were critical last year of Mr. Christie, who was an early supporter of Mr. Romney but who focused on Sandy recovery in the final days of the election and gave a warm welcome to Mr. Obama.

Seeking to do damage control, Mr. Christie this weekend denied that he hugged the president and told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the two men exchanged a normal handshake.

Mr. Christie also angered some congressional Republicans when he demanded that they quickly approve tens of billions of dollars in federal taxpayer aid for the regions affected by the storm.

Charlie Gerow, CEO of Pennsylvania-based Quantum Communications, said Mr. Christie’s positive features will attract Republican voters “because ultimately Republicans want to win 2016.”

“The conventional wisdom is that the Christie act won’t play well with Republican primary voters and won’t play well in early primary states. But I think the interest in taking the White House after the last eight years will outweigh that,” Mr. Gerow said.

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