News Column

Christie Shines in Presidential Spotlight

May 29, 2013

By CHARLES STILE

Chris Christie

President Obama returned to New Jersey on Tuesday with a valuable prop for Governor Christie -- the lectern with the presidential seal prominently displayed.

It was a small but significant detail for Christie, who just might try to succeed Obama in the Oval Office. The governor, who tongue-lashes critics at town hall events, seemed infused with a new gravitas. He was now the solemn statesman, speaking before a sea of cameras. It was as if he were auditioning for the role.

"Republicans, Democrats, independents -- we all came together because Jersey is more important, our lives more important, than any kind of politics at all," Christie said before introducing Obama to a soggy, stalwart crowd crammed outside Asbury Park's convention hall.

Seven months ago, Christie's guided tour of the storm-battered Jersey Shore helped Obama seal his victory against Mitt Romney. It gave Obama a chance to look presidential, a calm, non-partisan crisis manager in the aftermath of a devastating storm.

Tuesday's presidential visit allowed Christie to pound away at his claim of bipartisan leadership and, for at least a moment, as he stood before the crowd outside the convention hall -- itself a gritty icon of New Jersey's Gilded Age glory -- sound presidential.

The lectern's symbolism was not the only visual gift from Obama. There was the high-five after Christie threw a football through a tire at a Point Pleasant arcade on the first try. "That's because he's running for office," Obama joked, briefly revealing the political dynamic just beneath the carefully choreographed visit.

Obama also told the Asbury Park crowd that they were "stronger than the storm," the slogan of the back-to-the-Shore tourism ad campaign paid for with $25 million in federal recovery funds. Democrats have attacked the ads as de facto campaign ads for Christie, who appears in them with his family. But Obama's speech takes some of the sting out of the charge.

"After all you've dealt with, after all you've been through, the Jersey Shore is back and it is open for business," Obama said, in another echo of the advertising campaign's core theme.

Obama, who carried New Jersey by a wider margin than any other state in the nation last year, gave Christie cover in another important way. Obama took note that there are thousands of Sandy victims still without homes, still struggling with insurance claims, still years away from returning to normal. Obama was, in effect, taking responsibility for the problems. He was making himself a target of the discontent, which is no small thing given that Christie has made his record of Sandy recovery the centerpiece of his reelection bid.

"We don't want them to think that somehow we've checked the box and we've moved on. That's part of the reason I came back," Obama said.

The visit didn't solely bestow political benefits on Christie. It also allowed Obama to wrap himself in a bipartisan mantle just as his administration hunkers down with congressional Republicans over immigration reform and other issues.

It also gave Obama a chance to escape Washington and the scandals -- Benghazi, the I.R.S. Tea Party crackdown, the Justice Department's investigation of reporters' phone records -- that now frustrate his administration. He put on his presidential windbreaker and did what he does best -- fire up a crowd by offering "hope and change," albeit the Sandy version.

The Christie-Obama relationship drives the hard-core activists in both party into fits of fury.

Liberals believe Obama is simply giving legitimacy to a rising star of the Republican Party who just happens to oppose abortion rights and same-sex marriage and spent most of his first term weakening public employee unions.

Conservatives saw Christie's embrace of Obama as a betrayal of the Republican cause and blamed him for handing Obama a second term. Party activists argued that Christie virtually doomed his chances of capturing the Republican nomination in 2016, especially in Southern and Midwestern states where Obama is synonymous with socialism.

But for the short-term, Christie wants to score a major reelection victory. He wants to become the first Republican candidate for statewide office in 25 years to capture 50 percent of the vote or higher. Some observers say Christie needs to score 60 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger state Sen. Barbara Buono if he is to catapult into the top tier of GOP presidential hopefuls.

To achieve that, Christie needs to attract New Jersey's independent voters. Besides, party officials say, he has plenty of time to veer back to the right for the Republican presidential race. And, they say, his careful tacking down the bipartisan middle may not be the political death wish that conservatives claim it will be. After all, the last two GOP nominees -- Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- were moderates.

Christie's admiration and warm words will quickly fade if he does run. He will depict himself as a fresh, robust alternative to Obama, whom he has often slammed as a failed, inept leader. Expect Christie to reprise the withering attack lines he used in the weeks leading up to the storm last fall.

Even in the post-Sandy period, when federal relief had yet to be disbursed, Christie criticized Obama's second inaugural speech for its "my way or the highway" tone. And just two weeks ago, Christie criticized Obama for not being "assertive" enough handling the spate of scandals.

In fact, Christie was careful not to shower Obama with effusive praise like his last visit. He was comparatively cool on Tuesday. "I also made sure that he understood that there is a lot more work to do," Christie said in his introduction.

And when Obama ascended the stage, he gave Christie a handshake and a short pat on the arm, a far cry from the famous backslap at the Atlantic City airport seven months ago.

It was a recognition that they are playing the role of amiable across-the-aisle allies for a limited engagement.

(c) 2013 Record, The; Bergen County, N.J.. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.



Source: Copyright Record, The; Bergen County, N.J. 2013


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