South Plainfield, N.J. — Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who’s riding high in the opinion polls, is considered a leading contender for the GOP’s vice-presidential nomination. His town-hall meeting here on Thursday afternoon, held at a local gymnasium, shows why his national political stock is rising — and why Garden State Republicans have mixed feelings about his potential departure.
The event begins with cinematic flair. The lights dim, the 400-member-plus audience hushes, and a screen at the front of the room begins to crackle. Pulsating orchestral music plays as Christie narrates his gubernatorial record. The flickering images, which wash across the faces of the elderly crowd, are reminiscent of the title sequence of The Sopranos. A gritty New Jersey, filmed through sepia and black-and-white tones, comes into view. Broken windows, snarling legislators, and down-and-out cities form a montage. But through all the grime, slowly and steadily, strolls one man. He’s a warrior, a hero, and an outsider.
The staccato sounds quicken as Christie and carefully chosen media figures, such as Sean Hannity and Matt Lauer, tout his leadership qualities. We learn about his “commitment,” his lack of “fear,” and his “Jersey attitude.” These messages aren’t implied — they are pasted across the screen in bold letters.
Some in the audience nod, others cheer.
A second after the clip is finished, before the crowd has a chance to digest what they’ve seen, the lights are abruptly turned on. A grandmother rubs her eyes. Heads hastily turn away from the screen and toward the parting black curtains in the back, which are hung between basketball nets. There’s a brief pause, and then, whoosh. Christie, the movie star from a moment before, emerges. The place erupts. As he steps forward, Christie’s broad, ruddy face is serious and statesman-like, but his eyes are playful. He has already won them over.
For the next minute, dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt, and green tie, Christie holds on to a wireless microphone and shakes a few hands. Cell-phone cameras flash everywhere. All around him, beyond the bleachers, are New Jersey state troopers. Local detectives stand behind them, their arms folded and holsters visible. Countless aides hover near the staging area. They all wear earpieces and look stern. A giant American flag and a bright-yellow New Jersey flag hang behind the spot where Christie stands. The spectacle is part Hollywood premiere, part pep rally, and part presidential campaign.
But up close, when you see him pace across the floor, talking for 30 uninterrupted minutes about his achievements, you sense that this isn’t merely an expertly stage-managed politician, another governor with a large entourage, bravado, and a Patton-esque flag background. He is a cut above.
Whip-smart, articulate, and pleasantly pugnacious, Christie has the aura of a bona fide national sensation. The raucous applause he receives in Middlesex County is the same kind of reception that the governor receives in Orange County, the Rust Belt, and the Deep South. Republicans, from tea-party activists to national-committee grandees, can’t get enough. Team Romney, which has used Christie’s talents on the trail, surely notices. Yet at home, among his grizzled and outspoken constituents, the embrace of Christie is warmer and more intense than it is elsewhere. Speaking with the attendees, from members of the carpenters’ union and GOP state legislators to working-class parents, I don’t hear about Christie as just a future president, but as “the next Ronald Reagan.”
It’s pretty heady stuff.
So, as Romney and his advisers mull the vice-presidential pick, it’s worth observing Christie in action, now, to get a sense of what they’d get if they tapped this Jersey favorite. At first blush, it’s obvious that as Romney’s number two, he’d bring many advantages. He’d be an asset in the Northeast, where independents admire his disposition and fiscal conservatism. His experience as United States attorney, where he prosecuted corporate thugs and criminal politicians, would be a fine complement to Romney’s decades as a Bain Capital executive.