They refuse to take no for an answer: Republican business leaders from Iowa, the all-important first caucus state, had dinner on Tuesday night with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in yet another attempt to persuade him to seek the presidency.
The seven-member entourage traveled in vain. Christie has said repeatedly that he’s not running for president -- a decision that his spokesman reiterated on Tuesday to National Journal. The governor has even joked darkly that he’d have to commit suicide to stop the presidential queries.
He stuck to his pledge during the dinner at the historic gubernatorial mansion, Drumthwacket, in Princeton, reiterating an oft-made commitment to the people of New Jersey. But Christie did throw his visitors one bone: He told them he would give the keynote address at an education summit in the state this summer at the invitation of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). “So we’re excited his voice will be in Iowa in July and addressing education issues that are important to our state and our country,” Iowa ethanol entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter, a member of the recruiting delegation, told the Des Moines Register.
The "Run, Chris, Run!" pleas reflect a widespread Republican despair that their presidential contenders are lackluster, doomed, or both. But they’re also a testament to the Garden State governor’s emergence as a plain-spoken budget-cutter. He delivered a withering lecture to a New Jersey teacher who asked him about pension plans at a meeting. In a speech in Washington, he had the audience howling when he discussed entitlements as the proverbial third rail in American politics.
“Here’s the truth: You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security,” Christie told the American Enterprise Institute. “Uh-oh, I just said it, and I’m still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting."
“We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it’s going to bankrupt us,” he continued. “Once again, lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead.”
And therein lies a lesson for the GOP's presidential candidates: Speak in plain English and some of the the Christie Charisma might rub off on you.
The clichés of “living within our means” or “cutting wasteful spending” aren’t enough to sate Republicans. Voters want Christie-style rhetoric even if they can’t have the man himself.
He’s not the only Republican whose tough-talking speeches have earned him conservative adoration. Mitch Daniels, the normally self-deprecating, low-key Indiana governor, received a groundswell of support for his presidential campaign when during a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he called the deficit the new “red menace.”
Full-fledged candidates appear to be taking notice: Tim Pawlenty sounded like a Christie clone when he officially rolled out his campaign last week in Iowa.
“I could stand here and tell you that we can solve America's debt crisis and fix our economy without making any tough choices,” he said. “But we've heard those kinds of empty promises for the last three years, and we know where they've gotten us. Fluffy promises of hope and change don't buy our groceries, make our mortgage payments, put gas in our cars, or pay for our children’s clothes.
“So, in my campaign, I'm going to take a different approach,” Pawlenty said. “I am going to tell you the truth. The truth is, Washington’s broken.”
The former Minnesota governor then talked about the need to end ethanol subsidies, an anathema for many in the Hawkeye State; the next day, he traveled to Florida to say that the Social Security retirement age should be raised.
Of course, rhetoric goes only so far, particularly when it comes to luring tax-and-budget-cutting party activists. The fiscal conservative group Club for Growth is hardly swayed by Pawlenty's stepped-up rhetoric.
“We are reasonably sure that Gov. Pawlenty would be a pro-growth president, but he will also probably be susceptible to so-called ‘pragmatic’ policies that grow government,” the group summed up in a paper assessing his record in Minnesota.
“It’s more important that our members and public are educated whether or not these candidates stand for pro-growth fiscal policies,” Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club, said. “Their rhetoric is almost irrelevant to our evaluation of them.”
Christie's budget-cutting record ensures that his tough talk isn't hollow. But even as he tells the party to look elsewhere, his combination of words and deeds has made him some Republicans' champion.
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