Christie’s message has led to much speculation—and hope—among Republicans that he will run for the White House in 2012. Last month, he won the presidential straw poll at the Virginia Tea Party Patriots convention, and a Draft Christie website was launched soon after. Christie and his advisers have insisted a 2012 presidential bid isn’t in the cards. “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running,” he recently told reporters in Trenton. Over coffee at a Metropark hotel last month, Bill Palatucci, New Jersey’s national Republican committeeman and Christie’s closest political confidant, couldn’t contain his annoyance with the 2012 talk. “Where the hell’s the OFF switch?” he asked.
And yet Christie’s actions aren’t those of someone who has ruled out a presidential bid. On the morning I met with Palatucci, he was just back from Indianapolis, where, the night before, Christie had been the keynote speaker at an Indiana Republican Party fund-raiser. “There were 800 people there,” Palatucci nonchalantly noted. “He got two or three standing ovations.” Indiana was one of fifteen states Christie visited before the midterm elections as he stumped for Republican candidates from California to Pennsylvania.
In early October, Christie traveled to Iowa, to appear at a fund-raiser for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad. Speaking in a banquet hall outside Des Moines, Christie regaled 700 people—who paid $100 apiece to hear him speak and $1,500 to have a photo taken with him—with tales of his budgetary heroics. “You thought fiscal ’10 was fun,” he said to the smitten Iowans, “wait till you hear about fiscal ’11.” After his speech, Christie and Branstad met with reporters. Branstad—who served four terms as Iowa governor in the eighties and nineties and now, having won his fifth term, could be a 2012 caucus kingmaker—went first. “I don’t think I’ve been that inspired by a speech since Ronald Reagan was here,” he said. When it was Christie’s turn, he issued his standard denials about a presidential run. But then, when the press conference was over, a Christie aide flagged down Tom Beaumont, the Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter and a journalist any wannabe presidential candidate absolutely needs to get to know. About 30 seconds later, Beaumont and Christie headed off together for a more intimate interview.
Back in New Jersey, many politicos, especially the Democrats, don’t put much stock in Christie’s denials. “He swears a million times over, but c’mon, guys like me and him have egos,” Steve Sweeney told me. “You can already hear the speech. ‘In times like these, I have to put personal considerations aside and do this for my country …’ ” More than one person I spoke to made an analogy to another politician who had considerable star power but little experience when he decided to run for president. “This is sort of his Obama moment,” says Steve DeMicco, New Jersey’s preeminent Democratic strategist. “He either grabs the opportunity or he doesn’t.”
There are risks for Christie in waiting. New Jersey governors tend to get undue amounts of national attention early in their terms owing to the fact that the state holds its elections in off-years, and given the looming fiscal apocalypse, Christie is getting a lot of credit simply by stepping up to the plate. “I’m not sure I agree with everything he’s advocating, but he’s trying to address the problems,” says Jim Florio, a Democrat who was perhaps the last New Jersey governor to take fiscal responsibility seriously. “I admire his courage.”
But the job has a way of taking the shine off its holders, and for Christie, it’s only going to get harder. The longer he stays in office, the more he’ll be forced to take ownership of the state’s fiscal problems—and face the consequences of his spending cuts. Keeping his party in line will be more difficult, too. “He got a free pass this year,” says one Republican legislator. “Next year we’re all up for reelection, and we’re going to have to look out for ourselves on some of these votes.”
Already, his legislative successes have slowed. An ambitious pension-reform plan he unveiled in September is stalled in the Legislature. And the clock continues to tick on his tool-kit reforms. If those aren’t passed by the end of December, then next year, municipalities across New Jersey will have to resort to major layoffs—or bust the cap with referendums. Christie’s allies say that if that occurs, voters will blame the Democratic Legislature, but that’s no sure thing. As a former Corzine aide ruefully notes, being governor of New Jersey “is a setup for failure. It’s a sucker’s bet.”