Tampa, Fla. — He may be a YouTube sensation, best known for arguing with lefty hecklers, but Governor Chris Christie’s keynote speech late Tuesday was a temperate oration, forceful yet muted.
“Frankly, that is the Chris Christie I know,” says Pennsylvania congressman Pat Meehan, a former United States attorney who has been friends with the New Jersey governor for years. “The attack-dog part is what the media covers, but he has been a positive, forward-thinking, aggressive guy since the first time I met him.”
In front of a raucous crowd of delegates and conservative activists, Christie weaved personal anecdotes, including a moving tribute to his mother’s inspiration, with thoughts about his experience in the Garden State, where he has brokered bipartisan legislative reforms. Since Ann Romney spoke earlier Tuesday, one GOP official says it was critical to stay close to the night’s warm but serious theme.
Christie’s approach was a marked departure from previous Republican keynote addresses, which have often featured a rising politician willing to blast the Democratic nominee. Christie, for his part, did not once mention President Obama by name. Instead, his 2,600-word speech introduced the country to his singular brand, which blends a brusque rhetorical style with a reform agenda.
“We are demanding that our leaders stop tearing each other down, and work together to take action on the big things facing America,” Christie said. “It’s been easy for our leaders to say not us, and not now, in taking on the tough issues. And we’ve stood silently by and let them get away with it. But tonight, I say, ‘Enough.’”
“It was a conscious decision,” says former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a senior Romney adviser. “When the keynote speaker, who usually assumes the attack role, doesn’t attack, that’s not an accident. It signals that the campaign believes that the country has a negative opinion of Obama and that it has to offer a different vision.”
Christie was clearly well received, especially among the GOP faithful on the convention floor. Inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the atmosphere was electric, and the applause heavy. “He offered a stark contrast,” says Ron Christie, a Republican consultant. “We couldn’t have a more voracious and animated speaker in that slot. He set the tone for the entire campaign.”
According to his confidants, Christie spent two weeks preparing for the speech and practiced the final draft at the governor’s summer home in Island Beach State Park, on the Atlantic coast. The speech went through multiple drafts, an adviser says, but, surprisingly, the Romney campaign let Christie write the vast majority of his speech. Christie wanted to keep things personal and highbrow, and Romney’s high command was reportedly comfortable with that.
“Romney and the Republicans are trying to build a majority coalition,” says David Winston, a Republican pollster. “To be able to effectively govern, you need to have a vision, and part of Christie’s purpose was setting up Governor Romney’s message.”
The speech began with a glance at his middle-class roots and especially his parents, Bill and Sondra Christie. His mother, who died in 2004, was cited as someone who compelled him to commit to a career in public service. Christie has shared a version of this story at various town-hall meetings, but this was the first time he has used his upbringing to such effect on the national stage.
“[My parents] came from nothing,” Christie said. “[My mom] was tough as nails and didn’t suffer fools at all. The truth was she couldn’t afford to. She spoke the truth — bluntly, directly, and without much varnish. I am her son.” He also touched on his adolescence, when he listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town with “my high-school friends on the Jersey Shore.”
Another key moment in Christie’s speech was his extended riff about leaders. He believes they should aim to be respected, not loved. Part of the problem with the current administration, he argued, is their desire to be popular instead of being driven to solve complicated problems. Politics, he lamented, is paralyzed by the desire of politicians to win support in opinion polls. To fix the bloated budget, there will be difficult decisions, he warned.
“The greatest lesson Mom ever taught me was this one: She told me there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected,” Christie said. “She said to always pick being respected, that love without respect was always fleeting — but that respect could grow into real, lasting love.”