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Christie Hangs Onto His Hat: What Happens to GOP Field?

October 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced Tuesday that he will not join the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Judy Woodruff discusses what his decision means for the campaigns of the rest of the GOP contenders with Political Editor David Chalian and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, will not join the race for the Republican presidential nomination. His announcement today left Republicans to focus on their existing field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The first-term governor had spent a couple of weeks reviewing his longstanding refusal to run for president, but he said today in Trenton he came to the same conclusion.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: I’ve explored the options. I’ve listened to so many people and considered whether this was something that I needed to take on. But in the end, what I’ve always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today. Now is not my time.

So, New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you’re stuck with me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christie has been in office less than two years, and he repeatedly cited that fact by way of explanation.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: In the end, my commitment to the state is what overrode everything else. I mean, I asked for this job. I fought hard to get this job. And my job here isn’t done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christie’s announcement came as a new ABC News/Washington Post national poll showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reclaiming his front-runner status in the Republican race with 25 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has lost nearly half of his support over the past month after a couple of unsteady debate performances. He is now tied for second at 16 percent with Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive.

A clear majority of voters did agree on one thing, that President Obama’s prospects do not look good. Fifty-five percent said they believe Mr. Obama will lose in 2012.

For his part, the president embraced the poll finding yesterday in an interview with ABC News and Yahoo!

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, “Good Morning America”: Are you the underdog now?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Absolutely, because, you know, given the economy, there’s no doubt that, you know, whatever happens on your watch you’ve got —  

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You embraced that pretty quickly.

BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don’t mind. I’m used to being an underdog.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And ahead of his visit to St. Louis tonight, the president received a reminder of just how bruising the campaign will be in the form of a television ad from the conservative organization American Crossroads.

WOMAN: He raised our hopes. He seemed to understand.

BARACK OBAMA: The last thing you want to do is to raise taxes in the middle of a recession.

WOMAN: But today he’s different.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s a refrain Mr. Obama may hear over and over again no matter who ends up as the Republican nominee.

And for more on the race for the White House, we are joined by NewsHour political editor David Chalian, and national political correspondent for The New York Times, Jeff Zeleny.

Thank you, gentlemen, for being here.

David, let me start with you. Do you take Chris Christie at his word that this was all about fulfilling his commitment to be governor of New Jersey?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I’m sure that’s part of the reason. I mean, he has only been there for a couple years. I certainly take him at his word, but I also take him at his words all year long, Judy.

I mean, he has said time and again, he didn’t feel this was in him, he didn’t think he was ready for the job. I — Those are very hard words to walk back from. And I took him at his word as he said those comments throughout most of the year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeff, what else do you think may have gone into this?

JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times: I think one of the things was just the realization that this whole contest is beginning in fewer than 100 days. So, he can say that his team could have put this in place, but I’m a little skeptical that he would have been able to really get a campaign up and running.

And I also think he took a lesson from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. I mean, he saw how difficult this is to be on the debating stage and to be sort of on this high-wire act at this point of the campaign. So I do think he reconsidered it.

I’m told in the last couple of days — I agree with David — I mean, from the very beginning he said now is not the time. And I do take him at his word on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how much pressure was there on Chris Christie to get in?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, as you and I discussed last week, there’s no doubt that there was a segment of the donor crowd in New York and New Jersey on the Republican side that was very interested in him and in his candidacy, his potential candidacy. And there were some elected officials around the country that did call him. And clearly, today he told stories of what he referred to as regular Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The farmer in Nebraska.

DAVID CHALIAN: The farmer in Nebraska that sent him a FedEx. But there was not some major sort of movement out in the country to draft Chris Christie. It was a slice of the Republican Party.

And some of these high-dollar players inside the party were no doubt interested in him. And they spoke to him for many months.

This was not something that just came about in the last couple weeks. This is something that people have been trying to get him to engage on for the last several months. He finally gave in to engage on this reconsideration process. But as he said today, he ended up right where he had been all along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Jeff, he certainly seemed to leave the door open for the future, maybe, for 2016, or who knows. But where does — I guess the big question now is, where does this leave the rest of the field?

JEFF ZELENY: I think all of this was not necessarily about Chris Christie. Some of this was and perhaps most of this was about the current field. It was about Mitt Romney.

What is it about Mitt Romney that Republicans cannot just warm up to? And I think that this leaves the field scrambling somewhat.

Gov. Romney spent all afternoon, I’m told, with the exception of a public event in Florida, on the phone with some of these donors. They are trying to win over some of these people who Plan A was Chris Christie. He said, look, I’ll be your Plan B. He’s fine with that.

But he is trying to take advantage of this moment. He, of course, had a very strong September in terms of debate performance. So, Gov. Romney is trying to seize on this and trying to, you know, convince some Republicans who have been skeptical of him that he would be the strongest nominee. Gov. Perry isn’t ready to give in just yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about, you know, that point, what the clamor for — to the extent there was a clamor — for Gov. Christie, what does that say about the field?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, I think what Jeff is saying here is very true about what it says about Gov. Romney. And I think, also, if you just take a look at that ABC News/Washington Post poll that you mentioned in the piece there, Judy, if you look at the — if you add, let’s say, the Cain percentage to the Perry percentage to the Bachmann percentage, there is this wide swath of an anti-Romney vote, or a vote that is in search of a Romney alternative. Right? That Mitt Romney has not been able to grow beyond this sort of 25 percent range that he’s been in, and that’s his challenge now. He needs to seek to do that.

The opportunity he has is that it seems that that anti-Romney or that searching for an alternative to Romney wing of the party seems to have a different flavor of the month any given week in the contest. And that kind of fluidity is something that is an opportunity that they see inside the Romney campaign for him to be able to bring some of those people over and coalesce support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so that’s what Romney has to deal with, has to contend with.

And as you just said, Jeff, there’s still Gov. Perry. I mean, he’s gotten some bad reviews from the debates, but he’s still in the race.

JEFF ZELENY: He is without a doubt. I mean, for all the talk here in Washington of how awful his debates were, you talk to Republicans on Capitol Hill who are really sort of uneasy about Gov. Perry’s candidacy, he perhaps has the best for the most similarities to Gov. Christie in terms of his brash appeal.

He is plain-talking, and his team really believes that he will be able to reach out to some of these voters who are not looking for someone like Mitt Romney. And what does that mean exactly? Someone who has maybe vacillated on the issues a little bit.

So, Gov. Perry knows that he has to have a better October than he had September in terms of better debate performances coming up yet. But it’s October. It’s the first week of October. I think we should be pretty cautious in saying that the narrative for this campaign is set in stone right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even as we know that the contests, the primary contests, are going to start earlier.

JEFF ZELENY: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re just waiting to find out when Iowa is.

David, so does one of the other candidates in particular benefit from this, or is it still kind of mushy and hard to figure out?

DAVID CHALIAN: Well, you know, clearly, Mitt Romney benefits from this. And I also think that if you’re Jon Huntsman, who is nationally very low in the polls, but has been trying to get a foothold in New Hampshire, you breathe a bit of a sigh of relief that Chris Christie is not in this race, because New Hampshire would have been fertile ground for a Chris Christie candidacy. And now, Jon Huntsman’s entire path in this contest has been to try to derail Mitt Romney in New Hampshire.

He’s moved his entire campaign there. And so, without Christie there, Jon Huntsman still gets the opportunity to try to be the dragon slayer in the Granite State. But still, he has a long way to go before he can be considered a real contender for the nomination. But his path didn’t get impeded today by Chris Christie getting in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if it helps Huntsman and Romney, is there anybody clearly hurt by this, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY: I’m not sure there’s anyone clearly hurt by this. I mean, I do think that we have a — we still have eight candidates on stage, but probably for not that much longer. The third quarter financial reports are close, Sept. 30. They will be coming out in the next few days, by Oct. 15 for sure.

And several candidates are really running on fumes. Michele Bachmann being one of them.

She had three more advisers leave her campaign. A couple went back to her congressional office, which signals to me that there’s not the money to have them on payroll. So, I do believe that we have a contracting field here.

And there’s still the question of Sarah Palin. She’s not yet said what she’s doing. She’s given no signs that she’s definitely running. But she’s the only at least slight crack in the door that I see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the field contracting may be growing, maybe not, David? You get the last word on this.

DAVID CHALIAN: My guess is we’ve got the field that’s there, though I probably have said that before. But I do think that one person that is now going to start losing out here is the president, to some degree, because if this is the field, and it’s no more speculation about who is in and who is out, if indeed one of these top contenders on the Republican side can start coalescing support, it’s going to start moving into a bigger contest framed against the president before too long. And as we saw in that poll, 55 percent of the country thinks he’s going to be a one-term president. So he’s eager to get that one-on-one fight going, but he also now is going to have it on his hands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are off to the races. And we thank both of you for being here.

David Chalian, again, Jeff Zeleny, thank you both.

JEFF ZELENY: Thanks, Judy.