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Christie’s Moment

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“He’s real, he’s tough, he says what he thinks, [and] he’s someone who has approached the problems of his state with utter fearlessness,” argues Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “A lot of people are just offended and sick and tired of all the political correctness, of leaders tiptoeing around, focus grouping, polling, [asking] ‘What do I say?,’ afraid of offending this one, that one. [But] he is just utterly real.”

Last week, in his speech at the Reagan library in California, Christie showed how his approach in his state could be turned into a template for a presidential run. “In New Jersey over the last twenty months, you have actually seen divided government that is working,” Christie said. “We identified problems. We proposed specific means to fix them. We educated the public on the dire consequences of inaction. And we compromised on a bipartisan basis to get results. We took action … This is the only effective way to lead in America during these times.”

Potent as this message might prove to be on the national stage, until recently Christie had disclaimed—adamantly, unequivocally, with no trace of wiggle room—any interest in employing it there in 2012. But at the Reagan library, he adopted a less definitive stance, pointedly leaving the door ajar. What changed? No doubt the continued up-for-grabness of the race has had an effect, convincing him that the big prize is ripe for the taking. And so has the insistence of the pleading and the caliber of the pleaders. In addition to the likes of Langone, Singer, and a conga line of megadollar donors, among those who have reportedly encouraged Christie to run of late—assuring him not just that he can win but could handle the presidency—are Nancy Reagan, Henry Kissinger, and Bush 43.

None of this remotely means that winning his party’s nomination, much less the White House, would be a slam dunk for Christie. Getting a presidential campaign up and running from a standing start three months before the first votes are cast would be a monstrously daunting challenge. Christie’s unorthodoxies might be less attractive in a presidential candidate than a presidential chimera. As has been true of Perry, Christie’s lack of depth on foreign and national domestic policy might prove problematic. And his record in New Jersey has its share of soft spots, not least a state unemployment rate higher than the national average.

Then there is the matter of Christie’s health. Two months ago, the governor was hospitalized with breathing difficulties (he suffers from chronic asthma), and between that and what surely must qualify as his morbid obesity, it is reasonable to wonder if he is physically capable of bearing up to the brutal rigors of a presidential campaign. “I swear to God,” says one veteran campaign operative who is a Christie fan, “I’d be worried that if he runs, there’s a chance that it will kill him.”

Christie is acutely aware of all these reasons to stay put and stand pat. But he has also—finally, after having the point hammered home to him by various national figures, including more than one Democrat—come to realize that of all the variables in presidential politics, timing is the least prone to control but also the most crucial. As a Republican, and a controversial one, in a basically Democratic state, he will face a tough reelection fight in 2013. By the time the next presidential race rolls around, in other words, he may no longer be in office; and even if he is, there may either be a Republican incumbent in the White House or a Republican array of challengers considerably more formidable than the current one (featuring the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, John Kasich, Nikki Haley, and/or Bobby Jindal).

All of which is to say that 2012 may be Christie’s best and clearest shot at the Oval Office—that this may be his time. And while Christie might wish it were not so, ignoring that fact could come back to haunt him. “There are no cryogenic chambers in politics,” says Schmidt. “The moment is perishable; it’s either seized or it fades away.” And if you doubt that Schmidt is right, just ask Hillary Clinton.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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