By David Lightman, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Suddenly, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a Republican miracle worker.
For the moment, the Republican establishment is looking past his temper, the George Washington Bridge scandal, his state’s budget problems, and the uneasy feeling that he’s not conservative enough to be the nominee.
Instead, they hailed Christie at last week’s Republican Governors Association meeting as a veritable savior, the association chairman who raised millions of dollars to help colleagues and took risks that helped spur victories in tough states.
Yet all this good cheer probably won’t mean much should Christie run for the 2016 presidential nomination. The controversies are still percolating in the Republican heartland, especially among the party’s influential hard-core conservative wing.
“He’s a loudmouth and he’s not conservative,” said Jerry DeLemus, a founder of the New Hampshire tea party movement.
The best way to handicap a Christie White House candidacy at this point is this: “One of his strengths is that he’s interesting,” said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Like or hate him, Christie draws a crowd and is forever intriguing.
“He has the skills and charisma to connect with an audience. It’s an ability nearly unmatched among the rest of the field,” said Kevin Hall, columnist for TheIowaRepublican.com, an online political newsletter in the nation’s first caucus state.
Last week, Christie’s audiences were congressional Republicans, whom he addressed Monday on Capitol Hill, and then his fellow governors. He was funny and he was careful. He wouldn’t answer broad questions about immigration, saying there was no need because he isn’t a candidate for president.
“If I run, I’m sure I will,” he said at the governors’ meeting.
He’s made no decision about 2016 and won’t this year. “It’s a family decision,” he said.
Outside the friendly confines of the Boca Raton resort, though, Christie still has a lot of image-polishing to do. The “Jersey comeback” he once touted is waning. The state budget has been ailing, and the Garden State has had trouble with its pension payments.
The bridge scandal remains under federal investigation. Christie has maintained that his aides closed the bridge last fall, causing huge traffic tie-ups, but that he was unaware of the closing at the time. The action may have been prompted by a local Democrat’s refusal to endorse the governor’s re-election.
Few people in New Hampshire, Iowa or anywhere else are familiar with the bridge, though, and the Republican establishment appears to have dismissed the controversy.
“If it was a problem, it’s been absorbed. People are grateful for how much he did during the last campaign,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican activist and former state attorney general.
The bigger liability is Christie’s temper. The governor’s aides have been trying to present a kinder, gentler Christie with forums such as a high-level state meeting to discuss strategies for fighting drug addiction. But that’s been undermined by a series of very public outbursts.
Christie fought publicly with Kaci Hickox, a nurse he ordered quarantined upon her return from West Africa because she may have been exposed to the Ebola virus. She tested negative and protested her confinement. When Hickox threatened a lawsuit, Christie said, “Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”
What rankles Republicans most is an incident Oct. 29 in Belmar, N.J. James Keady, a Democratic former Asbury Park council member, confronted Christie, protesting that money to help victims of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy wasn’t being dispersed quickly enough.
An angry Christie shouted him down, telling Keady, “So listen, you want to have the conversation later I’m happy to have it, buddy. But until that time, sit down and shut up.”
Privately, governors and strategists say that kind of behavior is troublesome. “I raise my voice as a last resort,” DeLemus said. “With him it’s not a last resort. It gets nasty with him.”
Voters, though, are angry, and Haley Barbour, a former Republican Party chairman and former governor of Mississippi, thought the style might play well.
“What you describe as temper, I describe as candor and openness,” he said. “A lot of people like that.”
Such views illustrate the paradox of Christie and what makes him so uniquely interesting, Weingart said. “It seems like he’s very present in the moment, thinking and responding,” he said, which many find refreshing in an era when so many politicians seem so tightly scripted and robotic.
“It’s one thing to look at how someone has helped another candidate for governor,” Rath said. “It’s another thing when you’re considering policies and demeanor.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr