Over the past two years, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired up Republican
crowds with his tales of how he tamed public employee unions, Democrats and
runaway spending in Trenton.
Christie's narrative as the Jersey savior wove through his speeches in a closed-door party conclave in Aspen, Colo., and to policy wonks at think tanks, and in his keynote address to the Republican National Convention last year.
But in a speech last week before a group of national Republican officials gathered in Boston to chart the party's future, Christie made a bold, significant departure. He was now the Republican moderate following the path hewn by another charismatic governor who catapulted to the presidency two decades ago: Bill Clinton.
Clinton's formula _ tack right, tack left and then reach a safe, middle ground _ ended the Republicans' 12-year hold on the presidency. Christie is taking the same approach to end an eight-year Democratic stretch _ and prevent another Clinton from returning to the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the early polls. She has not said whether she will run.
"I'm in this business to win," Christie told Republican National Committee members in Boston, who were meeting last week across the street from where Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 Republican nominee, gave his concession speech last November.
"For ideas to matter, we have to win, because if we don't win, we don't govern," Christie said according to a Time magazine account cobbled together from interviews with guests and recordings. "And if we don't govern, all we do is shout into the wind. So I am going to do anything I need to do to win."
Christie did not declare his candidacy, but he was stepping into the shadow campaign for 2016 and stepping up the case that he has been slowly building for several years now _ that the party needs to coalesce around a candidate who is electable. Tea Party-favored candidates with impeccable conservative credentials like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky can't win a general election, Christie implied.
"Our party's got to get back to looking people in the eye, not try to figure out what they want to hear," Christie said. "I tell folks in my state all the time if you're looking for the candidate you agree with 100 percent of the time, go home and look in the mirror," he said, according to an account by Politico. "You're it. You're the only person you agree with 100 percent of the time, all right? If that's the litmus test, forget it!"
It's an argument that struck a chord among the establishment party's grass-roots leaders who attended the Boston event.
"People listened to him and they will go back home and they won't forget that they heard Chris Christie speak," Paul Craney said in an interview. Craney, who heads the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance and is a former executive director of the Washington, D.C., Republican Party, attended Christie's speech.
But unlike those earlier speeches, Christie put his style and accomplishments in the context of his current re-election campaign for governor against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono. He boasted of his endorsement from 45 Democratic officials, from Latino groups and the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, which historically endorses Democratic candidates.
And then there are the polls that Christie often dismisses when they deliver bad news _ but not in Boston. He recited poll numbers showing him grabbing 35 percent of the Democratic vote and holding a 3-1 advantage among independents.
Yet Christie's pitch did not win over everybody in the room.
Steve Scheffler, a national committeeman from Iowa, was less than thrilled with Christie's rebuke of candidates who want to act like college professors and debate political theory. "We're not a debating society," Christie said, according to Time. "We are a political operation that needs to win."
Scheffler, who read Christie's remarks as a swipe at Paul, said Christie can't skirt a debate on his record _ especially on issues like abortion, immigration and gun control.
"I'm not going to write him off, but he's going to need to have a tougher conversation on the issues whether he wants to or not, if he wants to run for president," Scheffler said in an interview. "People want to make sure that, by and large, he's going to stand for Republican principles and doesn't stray off the reservation too much."
And Scheffler does not buy the argument that the party has no choice but to rally behind centrist, establishment-anointed nominees. Look at what happened to Romney and U.S. Sen. John McCain before him, he stressed.
"If you don't have your base on board, you can have all the independent [voters] in the world, but you're not going to get to first base," he said.
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