Chris Christie, the Republican candidate for New Jersey governor, barrels into the room with the force of an NFL lineman. His outstretched hand swallows mine whole in a firm, fleshy grip. All head, chin, and midriff, even by outsize Jersey standards, Christie is large. George Bush—for whom Christie helped raise $350,000 during the 2000 presidential campaign—nicknamed him “Big Boy.”
It’s a rain-soaked afternoon in late September. Christie meets me at a campaign stop in Jersey City, shortly before he’s to pitch himself at a Rotary Club luncheon as the man to unseat Jon Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO turned struggling incumbent Democratic governor. His dark-navy suit is punctuated with a candy-colored orange tie. An American-flag pin in the shape of New Jersey is affixed to his bulging lapel. We’re seated in a private dining room with a fully stocked wet bar. A waitress brings Christie a pitcher of Diet Coke.
We begin to talk, but suddenly Christie’s eyes dart over my shoulder as he spots Zachary Fink, a political reporter for New Jersey public television, hovering nearby. “Will you go deal with Zach Fink out there who’s pacing and staring?” Christie snaps at his communications director, Maria Comella, who scurries out of the room.
Christie’s aggression has made him a force. Christie racked up an impressive 130 convictions without losing a single case during his seven years as U.S. Attorney in Newark. Even critics acknowledge that his crusade against political corruption—most recently, an investigation he spearheaded resulted in 44 arrests, including three mayors, five rabbis, and two state assemblymen—at least made a start at cleaning up New Jersey’s notoriously dirty politics. The gawdy record is controversial—he’s accused of pursuing Democrats disproportionately, as well as doing the White House’s bidding—but it catapulted Christie into a position to mount a credible Republican campaign in a resolutely liberal state.
Christie sips more Diet Coke, and our conversation turns back to the race. Corzine, he says, is “a guy who is lurching from crisis to crisis with no plan.” He crouches forward across the table and hammers away at Corzine’s record. “I had a ringside seat to the problems of the political system in New Jersey,” Christie says. I ask him what the governor could have done differently, given the depths of the recession and Trenton’s notoriously obstructionist political class. “He could have done a lot of other things,” Christie says flatly. “He didn’t lay off one state worker.”
Soon Christie is continuing his broadsides at the podium in front of a dining room full of Rotarians, who listen between bites of the perfectly stereotypical rubber chicken. “In exactly the same way that many of the bad actors on Wall Street used smoke and mirrors and gimmicks to run our national economy into the ground, Jon Corzine has brought that same style of leadership to New Jersey, and he has driven our economy into the economic ditch.” Christie’s 50-minute speech, a catalogue of age-old Republican grievances against Big Government, would, in normal years, fall flat in a liberal state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by some 700,000 voters. “This obviously should not be a close race,” says former U.S. senator Bob Torricelli, a Corzine friend. “Why is there a race? Americans are not going to adjust gently to a declining standard of living. It’s just the wrong election at the wrong time.”
Christie has been surprising the New Jersey political Establishment by leading the polls for most of the year. In recent weeks, the race has tightened, largely as a result of a barrage of negative ads from the Corzine camp. In a cratering economy, Corzine has never had much positive to run on; from early on, they knew their only chance was to tarnish Christie, and they’ve spent some $17 million (more than three times what Christie has spent) to do so, releasing ads that have mocked Christie’s erratic driving record (and thus neutralizing Corzine’s own seat-belt issue), his failure to report interest on a $46,000 loan he gave to his friend and former subordinate Michele Brown, and his ties to the Bush White House—not to mention his weight, which was employed as a metaphor for his ambition and lack of self-control. “He was a one-issue candidate,” Corzine’s campaign manager, Maggie Moran, tells me, referring to Christie’s presentation as a crusading reformer. “He rode into this race a white knight on a white horse, and he’s now sitting on a pig in the mud.”
“I have never been running on an ethics campaign,” Christie says. “I’ve given one speech in 260 days on corruption.”
Christie sees desperation in Corzine’s attacks. On the loan, he tells me: “It was an honest mistake; you’re talking about $420 in income I forgot to put on my tax return because I didn’t view a loan to a friend as an investment.” He’s even more combative when I ask about his driving, including a 2002 accident in which he escaped being ticketed after turning the wrong way onto a one-way street and colliding with a motorcyclist in Elizabeth. “They’re desperate to talk about anything but his record,” Christie tells me. “And if you had his record, you’d be desperate not to talk about it, too.”