WASHINGTON — Three years ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to be the answer to what ailed the Republican Party.
A popular GOP governor in a deeply blue state, Christie in his first term passed a bipartisan overhaul of the state’s public employee pension system through a Democratic-controlled state legislature, styled himself as a no-nonsense, straight-talking problem solver willing to work with both parties and earned high praise for his handling of the recovery after Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to the Jersey shore.
Even his brash style and penchant for outbursts, prominently on display at the 137 town hall meetings he has taken part in as governor, lent him an air of authenticity in an era of increasingly wooden and scripted politics.
On Tuesday morning, as Christie declared his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president, he faces much tougher odds, as the former rising GOP star tries to recapture some of the lost magic of his old political brand.
“I have spent the last 13 years of my life as U.S. attorney general and governor of this state fighting for opportunity and justice,” he said, speaking from the gymnasium of his former high school in his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey. “That fight has not made me more weary. It has made me stronger, and I am now ready to fight for the people of the United States of America.”
No other 2016 contender’s star has fallen quite so far and fast as Christie’s in his second term as governor. The most damaging development was a 2013 scandal involving a politically retributive bridge closure that consumed his office for months and led to indictments among his top staff. Although Christie has not yet been directly implicated, the controversy called into question his ethics and reinforced some people’s perception that he is a bully.
As he has traveled the country laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign and serving as 2014’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, troubles have mounted in New Jersey. The pension reform Christie championed has been stymied by legal challenges and budget shortfalls. Economic growth and job creation in New Jersey has lagged far behind the rest of the nation. The state government’s fiscal woes, which Christie vowed to fix, have caused New Jersey’s credit rating to be downgraded eight times during his tenure.
In Livingston, nonetheless, Christie touted bipartisanship and pitched himself as an antidote to entrenched Washington dysfunction, emphasizing his willingness to tackle tough problems and work across the aisle. He did not shy from embracing his record as governor, touting his refusal to raise taxes in the state, his heated confrontations with teachers’ unions and his efforts to balance the budget.
“Both parties have failed out country. Both countries have stood in the corner and held their breath waiting to get their way,” he said. “Both have led us to believe that in our country that was built on compromise that somehow ‘compromise’ is a dirty word.”
“As governor, I’ve proven you can stand up and fight the most powerful special interests and stop them and reach across the aisle to our friends in the Democratic Party to say, ‘If you have a good idea, I’m willing to work with you because that’s what our country needs.’” Christie added. “I’ve never wavered from telling you the truth as I see it and acting on it to show that it’s what I believe in my heart.”
How GOP primary voters react to his rehabilitation campaign, however, remains to be seen. As a centrist governor from a liberal state who once embraced tougher gun restrictions and a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants (he has since moved away from those positions), his courting of the party’s conservative base in Iowa and New Hampshire was always going to be challenging. Now he undertakes the task with his approval rating in New Jersey below 40 percent and his standing among Republican voters well behind the top-tier GOP contenders’, according to the most recent polling.
Christie appeared to be banking on his personal appeal to distinguish himself in that field, promising a fresh approach to campaigning that would deliver “big ideas and hard truths.”
“I am not running for president of the United States as a surrogate for the elected prom king of America. I am not looking to be the most popular guy who looks in your eyes every day and says what you want to hear and turn around and do something else,” he said. “When I stand up on stages like this in front of all of you, there is one thing you will know for sure. I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.”