Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, has a lot to be happy about. The recent revelation that he had lap-band surgery to gain control of his weight went about as well as could be expected. A less well-liked public figure might have been mocked for taking an extreme step, but Christie’s self-deprecating wit and what at least seems like unrehearsed genuineness and warmth have served as a shield. Like Bill Clinton in his prime, Christie has a mix of great appetite and great energy that Americans find strangely compelling.
And because there are only two gubernatorial elections in 2013, Christie’s bid for re-election is attracting a good deal of national attention, almost all of which has been positive. A new NBC News/Marist poll, released on Wednesday of last week found that Christie has a 69 percent approval rating, and that he leads his most likely Democratic challenger, State Senator Barbara Buono, by 60 percent to 28 percent among registered voters. Among likely voters, Christie’s support increases to 62 percent while Buono’s stays the same.
Christie still has to overcome the fact that the New Jersey electorate skews left, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s crushing 58to-40 percent victory over Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. One can imagine Democrats and left-of-center independents deciding they can’t back a self-described conservative for governor, no matter how much they like him personally. Mindful of this danger, Christie has been keen to emphasize his willingness to work across the aisle. In a new campaign advertisement, a narrator with a soothing baritone voice praises the New Jersey governor for “working with Democrats and Republicans, believing that as long as you stick to your principles, compromise isn’t a dirty word.”
To state the obvious, this is a message that doesn’t just resonate in New Jersey. Christie, having emerged on the national political scene as a bruiser best known for his heated confrontations at town hall meetings across the Garden State, has lately positioned himself as a bipartisan problem solver. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, he lashed out at congressional Republicans for, in his view, putting party politics ahead of the interests of his constituents. He famously stood shoulder to shoulder with President Obama just days before the 2012 presidential election as they surveyed the devastation Sandy had left behind, praising the same man he had campaigned against on Mitt Romney’s behalf for his capable response to the disaster. Many Republicans who had admired Christie were troubled by what they saw as his betrayal of the GOP. Cynics suggested that Christie recognized that his best path to a victory in a heavily Democratic state was to cozy up to a Democratic administration, and so he had no compunction about putting political ambition above political loyalty. Another interpretation, of course, is that Christie had put the interests of New Jerseyans first, an interpretation that had the added benefit of endearing him to voters in his state and beyond.
In light of his gravity-defying popularity, it is hardly surprising that Christie is seen as presidential timber. Naturally, Christie and his re-election team insist that they are focused on his re-election bid, and so they refuse to entertain questions about his presidential ambitions. Yet it is no secret that a number of influential Republican donors and activists had hoped he would enter the presidential race in 2012. And despite his supposed betrayals, Christie continues to command considerable respect among the Republican rank and file. Christie’s greatest success is that, like Obama at the height of his powers, he strikes many voters as somehow above politics. But whereas Obama was seen as cool, stylish and cerebral, Christie is seen as an unpretentious everyman who cares only about getting things done. This image has proven enormously beneficial to Christie’s fund-raising efforts, including among some California-based technology entrepreneurs and investors who haven’t backed GOP candidates in the past. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Facebook, famously co-hosted a Christie fundraiser with his wife, Priscilla Chan, motivated in part by his work with Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, another rising star, on education reform in New Jersey’s largest city.