It was just six weeks ago that Texas Gov. Rick Perry rode defiantly into a crowded Republican presidential contest and was immediately crowned a savior, the white knight of a restive Republican electorate unimpressed with the wooden Mitt Romney and the seemingly unelectable Michelle Bachmann. Now, with more than a few chinks in his armor, Perry is being brushed aside, his poll numbers sagging precipitously. Fearing once again the prospect of a fractious field without a standard-bearer, Republicans are searching anew for a guardian of the faith, and have apparently settled on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie has been governor for not two years, but conservatives across the country are mesmerized by Christie’s blunt-talking, confrontational style. With Christie, the thinking goes, you get the swagger of a Perry, the polish of a Romney and the track record of, say, a Jon Huntsman. And he would almost certainly be more sure-footed in public appearances and nationally televised debates than Perry has been. Republicans fear the Texas governor has already antagonized large swaths of the electorate after calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and embracing a compassionate approach toward the children of illegal immigrants.
To conservatives, New Jersey’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and general open-mindedness about social issues bears an unmistakable resemblance to the current administration. In his two years as governor, Christie has challenged an entrenched Democratic establishment and tangled with some of the country’s most powerful and well-organized labor unions. His duels with the teachers’ union, in particular, have won him glowing praise in conservative circles. When, at a town hall meeting last year, a teacher complained to Christie about cuts to her benefits and salary, Christie retorted, “You know what then? You don’t have to do it.”
For conservatives, there is reason to believe Christie can tame the wild frontier of free-spending, union-friendly, power-hungry liberal politicians because, in effect, he already has. Christie, for his part, seems well aware that his reputation of somehow confronting and also cooperating with Democrats — “divided government that is working,” as he has put it — is his main selling point. In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California this week, Christie branded his style as one of “leadership and compromise,” and said his administration had “compromised on a bipartisan basis to get results.” That image, however calculated, holds the promise of appealing to both Tea Party conservatives and also the mainstream electorate.
The machinery of the Republican Party clearly thinks so. Fox News Channel ran a poll this week all but exhorting its respondents to become Christie boosters. “Some Republicans are encouraging New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to run for president because they see him as a strong leader and a straight talker. Do you think Chris Christie should run for president, or not?” The channel is, of course, run by Republican heavyweight Roger Ailes, who has reportedly urged Christie to enter the race. And one of the party’s preeminent donors and bundlers, the wealthy hedge fund manager Paul Singer, has been among the chief advocates of a Christie campaign, appealing personally to the governor to run, according to Politico.
The support from Singer, though, hints at a potential weakness inherent in a prospective Christie candidacy. The last presidential candidate to benefit from Singer’s largesse was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, like Christie, was something of a Republican dream candidate when he first entered the presidential race in 2007. He had a track record of championing conservative principles in a liberal bastion, and paring down New York City’s unwieldy bureaucracy. He was, like Christie, a blunt, animated talker who did well in public appearances and connected with voters on a personal level. He was a conservative who could appeal to the various wings of the party while also attracting votes from moderates and independents in the general election. Singer and others invested considerably in the promise of a Giuliani candidacy.
Then, of course, Giuliani imploded, tarred by a long list of conservative heresies that had been unearthed after he entered the race. A Republican from the northeast can seem enticing, exotic in a way — a conservative warrior who fights heroically behind enemy lines. But this gloss disguises the obvious imperfections: In order to get elected, Republicans in the northeast must moderate themselves, and some of their positions are likely to diverge considerably from conservative orthodoxy. For example, Perry has been lambasted by his opponents for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges. But Christie has himself taken a middle-ground approach toward illegal immigration, calling on the federal government to create a “clear path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants.
The same blunt talk that has made Christie the latest darling of the conservative movement threatens to derail him as well. He has, for example, acknowledged the science behind climate change — a move that only one other presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman, has made, with little success. Christie has also embraced what he calls “common sense” gun control laws. And he has derided critics of Islam, which might earn him the ire of a Tea Party movement tinged with anti-Muslim sentiment. Christie was criticized by some anti-Islam activists earlier this year when he appointed a Muslim judge to a New Jersey judicial post. Christie, in typical guns-blazing fashion, defended his appointment. “It’s just crazy,” Christie said, “and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”