Chris Christie continues to flirt with conservative base, despite denials of presidential aspirations

Amanda Carey Contributor
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It’s the chase. In the same way adolescent males revel in the glory of chasing a would-be companion, conservatives revel in chasing after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the hope he will run for president, despite his repeated and clear declarations that he will not in 2012.

Still, conservatives chase.

Last October, a “Draft Chris Christie” site was launched. Even before that – in April 2010, only three months after Christie was sworn into office,” Salon.com speculated whether the governor could be the “GOP dark horse for 2012.”

Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh famously told listeners, “Is it wrong to love another man? Because I love Chris Christie.”

More recently, conservative columnist Ann Coulter went so far as to say that if Christie doesn’t run, President Obama will win re-election. “If we don’t run Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee and we’ll lose,” she said. Later, she added, “I don’t care if he wants to run. His country needs him.”

But at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Wednesday afternoon, where the venue was standing room only a full twenty minutes before his speech and brimming with the presidential buzz often associated with actual candidate appearances, Christie squashed presidential rumors with the thud of an abrupt breakup.

“Listen, you have to believe me when I say to you that you have to feel in your heart and in your mind that you’re ready for the presidency,” said Christie. “And there are lots of people who will run just because the opportunity presents itself, and I’m not stupid. I see the opportunity. I see it.”

“I think that all too often that’s the reason why people do run. It’s just because they see the opportunity….that’s not a reason to be President of the United States,” he added. “You have to believe in your heart and in your soul and in your mind that you are ready, and I don’t believe that about myself right now. “

The faint sound of hearts collectively breaking around the room could be detected as Christie added, “I can’t imagine that changing.”

But despite the straight talk shutting down hopes for a challenge to President Obama, the rest of Christie’s straight talk Wednesday afternoon likely left his audience even more smitten. The governor managed to frame himself as being independent of intraparty issues, even chiding “our bold, new Republicans that we just sent to the House of Representatives” for not getting more serious on spending. Of course,  he did not hold back on his criticism of Democrats either.

Christie’s “whip ‘em into shape”-like speech was clearly bipartisan. But his message was simple: follow my lead.

“I really think it’s extraordinarily important for those of us that believe that our country is off on the wrong track to begin the conversation…and to continue the conversation about how we fix the problems that ail our states and our country in a direct and blunt way,” said Christie. “And I fear…that we’re missing an historic opportunity. And I will not be someone who will participate in silently missing that opportunity.”

Christie repeatedly told the audience that not only does he want to continue fixing things in New Jersey, he also wants Washingtonians to take notice. Throughout the speech he cited several examples during his first year in office where he had to make tough choices to rein in spending, like proposing a drastic cut in pension benefits, taking on teachers’ unions and superintendent pay, and submitting a budget that cut spending while resisting calls to increase taxes.

But skeptics don’t have to take Christie’s word for it. “Across the river you have the son of a liberal icon who is saying the exact same thing I’m saying,” said Christie, referring to the newly-elected Democratic Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo.

“I defy you to look at the first six weeks of the Cuomo administration in Albany and discern much of a difference between what Governor Andrew Cuomo is saying and what Governor Chris Christie is saying on these big issues,” he added.

“It’s not because all of a sudden Governor Cuomo and I have decided that we’re members of the same party. We’re not. But we’re confronted with the same problems.”

Christie also took aim at popular entitlement programs, even mocking the long-held belief there are political issues so toxic they can’t be touched.

“You’re going to have to raise the retirement age of Social Security. Oh! I just said it! I didn’t vaporize!” he said in a tone mixed with sarcasm with disbelief the program wasn’t yet being tackled by federal politicians.

“We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us,” Christie added. “Once again, lighting did not come through the windows and strike me dead!”

But Christie’s tone turned serious again when he said, “Our country and our states are weighed down by an albatross of irresponsibility…that we have foisted upon ourselves as leaders, and that you as citizens have permitted us to get away with.”

At that point, the laughter in the room vanished and the Christie supporters swooned just a little more. It’s unlikely any conservative will stop chasing after a Chris Christie presidential run anytime soon.

And denials or not, Christie shares some of the responsibility for the continued chase — he continues to flirt with his ardent supporters by positioning himself as a national leader, all the while denying the desire to run for the highest political office in the nation. So for now, conservatives will continue to wait in suspense to see if their conservative hero from Trenton will take his message to Washington after all.