Largely overlooked in Chris Christie’s ballyhooed speech at the Reagan Library last week was his off-the-cuff remark that encapsulates why some Republicans are panting for him to run for president.
“If this is the day that you decide you want to impress your friends on television, if this is the day you decide you want to take the governor of New Jersey out for a walk, I will give you the rule I give in New Jersey,’’ cracked the pugnacious governor. “You give it, you’re getting it back.’’
Cue the rousing applause.
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While the mounting interest in Christie reflects an unusually unsettled Republican field, it also reveals something about voters' predilections in the 2012 race. More than anything else this election cycle, perhaps more than ideological purity or outsider status, Republicans seem to be looking for someone who can throw a punch.
In other words, someone who can really knock President Obama out of the White House.
“There’s an insatiable appetite in the Republican Party for a strong fighter, and Chris Christie fits that bill perfectly,’’ said GOP consultant Phil Musser, a former Tim Pawlenty campaign adviser. “Republicans want someone who can go toe-to-toe with Obama. The level of frustration out there lines up well with someone like Christie, who tells it to you straight.’’
Perhaps that’s why Jon Huntsman much-hyped entry into the race was met with a collective yawn when he called for “civility.’’ Witness the appeal, at least for a while, of Michele Bachmann’s spunky debate debut and her “titanium spine.’’ Republicans may have been willing to overlook Pawlenty’s past support for a cap-and-trade program to combat climate change, but they were unforgiving when he balked at confronting rival Mitt Romney in a nationally televised debate.
Enter the brash governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who once shot a coyote dead while out for a jog. He catapulted to the top of the presidential primary polls, at least in part, on the promise of his swagger. But his feeble performances in three back-to-back nationally televised debates raised questions about his potential mettle in a general-election campaign against a sitting president.
His remark that Republicans who don’t share his support for college tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart’’ did not fly. Republicans are a lot less interested in compassion than in combat.
The question is whether Christie’s blunt persona can make conservatives forget his moderate record on gay rights and gun control.
“There’s definitely interest in having the alpha male enter the room,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an Iowa-based group for religious conservatives. “They want someone who is a bold leader, who can articulate, who can stand his ground.”
Remember how President George W.H. Bush had to endure talk of a “wimp factor?’’ The imperfect governor of New Jersey is a lot of things, but a wimp isn’t one of them.
There are entire videos on YouTube devoted to Christie’s politically incorrect, in-your-face greatest hits. He is best known for taking on the teachers’ union, at one point dismissing their complaints over potential cuts as “crap.’’ In one oft-replayed television appearance from August, he told Asbury Park residents ignoring his evacuation order as Hurricane Irene approached, “Get the hell off the beach.’’
“I have an Irish father, and I had, before she passed away six years ago, a Sicilian mother,’’ he recently told a delighted audience. “Now for those of you who have been exposed to the combination of Irish and Sicilian, it has made me not unfamiliar with conflict.’’
Susie Wiles, Huntsman’s former campaign manager, said that the secret to Christie’s appeal may lie less in his combativeness and more in his image as a stark contrast to Obama. While the president, a former constitutional law professor, is slim and cool and prone to looking for consensus, Christie, a former federal prosecutor, is overweight and overheated. While Obama looks like he just walked out of the Harvard faculty lounge, Christie looks like he comes from the streets.
“He looks like the best foil to the current occupant of the White House,’’ Wiles said. “It’s easy to chalk up the buzz over Christie to him being the flavor of the month, but at some basic level, people are looking for someone who is not Barack Obama in any way…. It remains to be seen whether those personality traits will trump the ideological tests, and if I had a crystal ball, I bet that’s what the Christie brain trust is dealing with.’’
Alex Roarty contributed