TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, strolling the Wildwood boardwalk for 90 minutes, belonged to anyone who wanted to gab about Hurricane Sandy rebuilding or razz him about his beloved New York Mets baseball team.
“How you doing?” said Christie, pausing every few steps on Aug. 27 to smile for mobile-phone photos. Vacationers greeted him as “governor.” He insisted: “Chris.”
Ten weeks before an election in which he has a 20 percentage-point lead over Democratic state Senator Barbara Buono, Christie is seeking to run up the margin and use a blowout victory to advance his position in a crowded field of prospective 2016 Republican presidential candidates.
It’s a strategy that’s been employed before; President George W. Bush’s 1998 re-election in Texas with a landslide 69 percent of the vote sent some of his potential Republican primary challengers to the sidelines.
Yet Christie, 50, faces an added hurdle: he must take a win in a blue state — New Jersey voters backed Democrats in the last six presidential contests — and convert that into momentum in a Republican primary. That’s a partisan pivot that has tripped up presidential hopefuls in the past.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who ran in the 2008 Republican primary, had a 14-point lead over his challengers in an October 2007 Gallup poll. That advantage vanished when Republican primary voters who disagreed with his stances on abortion rights and other issues began casting votes in January 2008. Giuliani, after losing in three early primaries, ended his candidacy on Jan. 30, 2008.
A home-state partisan disconnect can also haunt a candidate who wins the party’s nomination. Republican Mitt Romney, who captured his colleagues’ backing only to lose the general election, was defeated by President Barack Obama in heavily Democratic Massachusetts — and New Hampshire and California, also states where he has residences. In the 2000 presidential, the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t have been able to declare Bush the victor if Democratic nominee Al Gore had won his Republican- trending home state of Tennessee.
Those unsuccessful candidacies would provide clues for Christie about charting his course after the re-election race.
“That fact that Governor Christie is pro-life and Mayor Giuliani is pro-choice is indicative of some differences on the Republican side that would be a factor in the nomination,” said Edward Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Party. Christie, as governor, also has put “in place Republican policies that have promoted” the state’s economy, he said.
In the Iowa caucuses, traditionally the first electoral measure in the nominating process, Christie has potential for acceptance, according to Bill Schickel, 61, a former co-chairman of the state Republican Party who also was a three-term legislative representative from Mason City.
“His directness and his ability to articulate conservative principles are something I think a lot of Iowans would find appealing,” Schickel said by telephone.
Even some voters who favor reduced federal spending would understand the governor’s lobbying for aid after Hurricane Sandy, he said. “New Jersey suffered very, very unique circumstances,” Schickel said. “People can understand the crisis situation.”
Securing a major re-election victory also will have some advantages. Appearing at “sports venues and middle-class beach resort walks promote a regular-guy image that works as well in the state as it does nationally,” said Ross Baker, a political- science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“He is not going to be tagged as an out-of-touch elitist like Romney,” Baker said.
Still, Christie’s unconventional style and penchant for blunt statements create risks that he will be tagged with other monikers that could become primary drags.
The day before Christie kicked off a week of boardwalk and beach stops, he appeared on Aug. 26 as a co-host on a sports radio talk show on WFAN, during which he called a New York Daily News reporter an “idiot” for his questioning of New York Jets Coach Rex Ryan. The newspaper responded by calling the governor “fatso” on its front page the next day.
Christie has called his Democratic opponents in the state legislature a “joke,” a “jerk” and “numbnuts,” and was filmed last year calling a heckler “tough guy” on the Seaside boardwalk. In 2011, he urged reporters to “take the bat out” on a 76-year-old female senator for collecting both a public pension and a paycheck as a legislator while criticizing others for similar practices.
In February, Christie called a former White House doctor who said he was dangerously overweight a “hack” and said she should “shut up” unless she examines him. That same month, he had secret gastric-band surgery to help him shed pounds. He denied that the move was tied to his political aspirations.
“New Jerseyans have come to accept that that’s what you get with Governor Christie: someone who is very direct and blunt,” said Krista Jenkins, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind polling center in Madison, New Jersey. “When you think of 2016, the first thing you have to think about is not so much how his persona is going to play with the general electorate, it’s how he’s going to play with the Republican base.”
The governor has also rubbed party activists and leaders wrong for his willingness to work with Democrats and fight for federal disaster relief money without corresponding cuts.
Christie, who introduced Romney at the Republican National Convention a year ago, stopped campaigning for him as Hurricane Sandy bore down, then struck the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29. Obama arrived for a tour of the devastation three days later and the governor greeted him with an embrace.
“Christie could have easily said, ‘We welcome you, Mr. President. We need your support and we’re counting on you to help us during this difficult time,’” said Lee Miringoff, polling director for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. “Instead he broke into a paraphrase of the Gershwins: ‘You’re wonderful. You’re marvelous.’”
Some Republicans also were aggrieved when he criticized House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republicans in the chamber for delays in approving federal storm assistance.
In the Jersey Shore town of Sea Bright on Aug. 28, the governor encouraged a crowd “to take advantage” of the state’s share of the $50.5 billion in Sandy aid approved by Obama.
“There’s no shame in coming forward and getting this help,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve done for other states when they’ve suffered similar disasters, and it’s New Jersey’s turn to use every resource at our disposal to recover.”
New Jersey expects to spend $36.9 billion to rebuild and prevent damage from future storms. Christie, the first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, gained record approval ratings in polls for his handling of Sandy, and has staked his re-election on the recovery.
Christie’s presence on the boardwalk this week was an indirect way to remind voters of that work.
At a stop in Long Branch, he was well-tanned, wearing khakis, a Princeton University golf shirt and white sneakers. He shook hands with Al Tobin, a 62-year-old sales manager from Toms River.
“Seventy days, baby,” the governor told him, referring to the countdown to Election Day, Nov. 5.
“I’m talking about ’16,” Tobin responded. Christie replied: “My mother taught me first things first, Al. We gotta do what we gotta do, right?”