- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2014

Looking to lead the GOP into the future, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is trying to steer the party away from part of its not-too-distant past, arguing that incarceration is not the best way to help non-violent drug offenders get back on their feet.

The blunt-talking governor first declared the “war on drugs” a failure in 2011 and has since couched the argument in pro-life terms, saying treatment is more effective than tossing people in prison, as he looks to lay the foundation for a 2016 presidential campaign.

“I believe if you’re pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life,” Mr. Christie said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference. “You can’t just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb.”

Advocates of criminal justice reform, including faith-based groups, applaud Mr. Christie’s message, which is a major shift from the tough-on-crime push the GOP professed in the 1980s and 1990s, spearheading efforts to abolish parole and stiffen sentences while casting Democrats as soft on crime.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a pair of possible contenders of the GOP presidential nomination, also are advocating alternatives to incarceration. And Republican governors, including Nathan Deal in Georgia and Phil Bryant in Mississippi, are pushing the party to rethink its approach to criminal justice.

“The leadership on this issue is very much occurring with the younger generation of conservatives — again not only from the cost perspective and in how it makes good sense as limited government, but also in terms of value,” said Maryland state Sen. Christopher B. Shank, executive director of the Justice Fellowship, who attended the Faith and Freedom conference. “I think it really marks a demarcation and shift of this whole notion of tough on crime. It had its place, but the pendulum is swinging.”

Mr. Shank said he recently addressed a group of young Republicans and very few knew about the infamous Willie Horton television ad that George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 race to make the Democrat look weak on crime. “It was encouraging to me,” he said.

Whether the issue wins over Republicans for a potential presidential bid, however, is uncertain.

Raymond Maines, 78, of Alaska, said the message will not sway him to vote for Mr. Christie if he runs for the GOP presidential nomination.

Mr. Maines said he likes Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, particularly after the party nominated Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.

“The last two presidential nominees have been what is considered more moderate in a lot of areas as far as a conservative Christian goes,” Mr. Maines said. “McCain, I had to hold my nose to go vote for that guy. It wasn’t quite as bad for Romney. But I would like to see some real Reagan-type guy that would stand up for the principles of where our country came from.”

Lyn Murphy, 52, of Georgia, said she agrees that incarceration isn’t the answer for some, but that “there are bigger issues on the table.”

“I think he is trying to broaden what he is known for and to navigate away from immigration and the things he has made mistakes on in the eyes of conservatives,” Mrs. Murphy said, alluding to Mr. Christie’s support for in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants and his support of judges involved in the legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

But Dave Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist who advised Mr. Romney in 2012, said Mr. Christie’s message has broad appeal.

“There’s no question that he can appeal to supporters of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, although he may not be their first choice,” Mr. Kochel said. “Governor Christie will get a lot of credit for reaching out, trying to expand his audience, and telling voters who he is and where his values come from. And it’s more than just social conservatives who are watching, it’s the broader party looking for someone who can fully represent the Republican Party and all its factions.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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