Chris Christie’s best shot at the White House is to keep not thinking about it

Jon Ward Contributor
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In a normal election cycle, the talk of a run for president by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would be nothing more than table talk, idle chatter indulged with the knowledge that the Republican Party abides by traditions and rules and thus usually nominates the next candidate in line.

However, it’s already established that in 2012, even if there was a front-runner to challenge President Obama, which there isn’t, there will be no anointings given simply for paying dues. Not at this moment, not with these stakes and this president.

But while the cautions to Christie against running are strong, and come from those within the GOP who profess nothing but admiration for him, it may be the time and place where even the usually unbreakable argument that a reformist governor cannot be taken seriously if he left his job undone could be dissembled and disregarded.

Talk to those close to Christie, and they are fully aware that much of the governor’s magnetism comes from his singular focus on one set of issues in one particular job: his.

“Step one is to do the best job he can in turning the state around and making it a home for growth,” said Bob Grady, an economic adviser to Christie and veteran of President George H.W. Bush’s White House. “Step two is, if people think he’s done a good job at that, the first thing he would consider is running for reelection, which would be in 2013. And go from there.”

But talk to another confidante and supporter of the governor, and there is the recognition that even the most ironclad promises by Christie – that there is “zero chance” he will run in 2012 – could be overwhelmed by the call of history.

“People always are leery that something could change,” said Bill Palatucci, a former law partner of Christie’s and close friend, who in July became a committee member of the Republican National Committee representing New Jersey.

“So yeah, I think that’s in the back of everyone’s minds that even the most Shermanesque statement could be retracted,” Palatucci said. “That said, most people have also come to know that when this guy says something, he means it.”

“No one gets the sense that he is playing a game here,” Palatucci continued. “They believe him. But they also know that politics is politics and things down the road could change.”

The hidden subtext to their comments, in addition, is that the best way for Christie to run for president is to not run. His best chances are in doing what he has been doing, namely, taking on all comers, racking up wins with straight talk rarely seen in politics, and not really caring too much what people think of him.

Grady himself added: “I do think the people of the state appreciate him taking on the tough choices … it’s an example of what we need to do in the rest of the country.”

So far, in the one year since he was elected, Christie has closed an $11 billion budget deficit and pushed a cap on property taxes through the legislature. And by virtue of his much-publicized showdown with the public school union, he has been one of the most prominent and influential figures leading a move in public attitudes toward a harsher judgment of teacher unions. Christie is now focused on reforming the schools – working with Democratic Newark Mayor Corey Booker – and the pension system for state government workers.

Many of Christie’s biggest fans agree that the governor is setting a template for the issue set upon which a successful 2012 candidacy might be built. But in canvassing the opinions of roughly 70 Republicans, Democrats and analysts Tuesday – about half of which responded to phone calls and e-mails – it was clear that there is no consensus on whether Christie would be making a mistake if he did decide to run.

“I love him. I think he is a fantastic and substantive breath of fresh air … but I hope he doesn’t run for president,” said Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary to President George W. Bush.

“If he jumped in he’d be susceptible to the accusation that he’s ambitious, overly ambitious, that he’s gone back on his word to put New Jersey first,” Fleischer said. “Everybody’s focused now on the positives of getting in. It’s when you get in that it starts getting bad.”

“He’s a superstar, and his stardom will rise if he does a good job in New Jersey. Patience is a virtue in politics,” he said.

That, however, sounds suspiciously like the “wait your turn” ideology that has dominated Republican presidential politics for years, leading to unsuccessful candidates like Bob Dole in 1996. And it is no secret that most of Bush world, including the former president himself, favors Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.

Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush, said she understands why Bush and many in his universe are behind Daniels, who was the president’s first budget chief and has been governor of Indiana for nearly six years.

“Mitch has had more years to serve as a governor, and Chris Christie really hasn’t,” McBride said. “There’s a certain allegiance.”

Nonetheless, McBride said of Christie, “I would drop everything to work for a guy like this.”

“I think the times define the candidate and what’s needed for the country, and I think he’s the kind of person the country needs,” she said, comparing his ability to galvanize conservatives to that of Republican icon Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan mantle is one that has been claimed recently by another possible candidate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, which did not go unchallenged by some of Reagan’s former aides. But both Palin and Christie have traveled recently to Iowa, the state that votes first in the presidential primary. Yet neither has done anything in the way of setting up a campaign, Iowa Republicans say, to lay the groundwork for a serious run at the White House.

In the case of Palin, for whom a candidacy is increasingly thought of as a real prospect, the lack of preparations in Iowa is merely evidence that, in the words of one Iowa Republican, that she and her small coterie of advisers are “kind of making it up as they go along.” In Christie’s case, it is taken as a sign that he is serious about not running.

Christie’s speech to 800 or so GOP donors at a fundraiser for Gov.-elect Terry Branstad in October was a huge success, Iowa Republicans said.

“Gov. Christie is a rising star within our party, and was extremely well-received by the 800 who turned out to see him,” said Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht. “This was the most successful fundraising event for any candidate in Iowa this cycle.”

“Whether he runs for president is ultimately up to him, but he didn’t hurt himself by coming to Iowa to share his positive message,” Albrecht said.

Back in Christie’s home state, voters are not so enamored of White House talk. Even though Christie has a 51 percent approval rating with only 38 percent disapproving, an overwhelming 61 percent said he would not make a good president, while only 24 percent said he would.

And while Christie excites a certain segment of Republican political activists and operatives, he has yet to catch on with the broader conservative electorate.

“What I’m hearing is, ‘who’s it going to be?’” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “I’m not hearing, at this point, people offering names. Occasionally I hear his name along the more politically attuned folks. But right now nobody’s being talked about as, ‘This is the guy or gal.’”

The most likely way that a Christie candidacy could come about is if he is drafted, regardless of whether the movement is organized or organic.

“It’s just a bit too quick to nominate him … However, if enough people, organized, with means and a game plan ask him to enter the race, well then you’re answering a call to duty and the calculus changes,” said Bob MacGuffie, a grassroots Tea Party organizer in Connecticut said.

But several political operatives were quick to point out that modern politics requires a decision well in advance of the election year, so that all the myriad elements of a campaign and fundraising structure can be built out.

“You can’t flirt your way into it, like Fred Thompson wanted to,” said David Kochel, a Republican consultant in Iowa who is working with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “People won’t hand you the nomination, despite all the obvious skills [Christie] has.

“I think his priority is doing the job he has as well as he can do it, while building his brand nationally so he is able to last longer than the flavor of the month.”

Nevertheless, Democratic consultant Pat Caddell called Christie “the most refreshing politician of either party to come on the scene in ages” but cautioned that while anything could happen, a draft Christie movement seems hard to imagine.

“Do I think he’d be a great candidate? Yes. Do I think he’ll run? No. Do I think he’ll get drafted? Unlikely,” Caddell said. “[20]12 is so hard to see right now. I keep saying 2010 was the way station on the way to something bigger. We don’t know what that something is. But it will develop in front of our eyes.”

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