A few steps away from the Delaware River, in the marble halls of New Jersey’s capitol, there’s a consensus among Trenton insiders: Governor Chris Christie would gladly accept the vice-presidential nomination, should Mitt Romney offer it.
“Christie is open to it, his family’s comfortable with it, and he’s been vetted before,” one top state lawmaker says. “He isn’t going to campaign for it, but it’s no secret that he would relish the opportunity to play at that level.”
The open question, however, is whether Romney will actually pick up the phone and call — tapping one of the GOP’s brightest rising stars to share the stage. As one Garden State operative puts it, “It’s like asking Joe DiMaggio if he wants to play alongside Mickey Mantle.” Christie would help the team, but he may steal the spotlight.
“I think Christie has enjoyed the national attention,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican consultant who managed President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign. “I think he would bring star quality to the ticket and he could help energize the base,” but his “big personality might overshadow Romney.”
Sources close to Christie acknowledge that the first-term governor doesn’t mind the speculation. But they’re mixed on whether he would eventually sour on staying on-message, all of the time.
“This is a man who runs things, be it as United States Attorney or as governor,” one Christie ally explains. “It’s fun to imagine him debating Vice President Biden, and then there’s the reality, if he’s picked, of going along with Boston’s plan — sticking to the script and playing a role.”
Romney, a Christie aide says, calls the governor on a regular basis, and the pair have reportedly bonded during their appearances together on the campaign trail. But beyond that, the aide says, there are few veep clues.
As Romney mulls over his choice, an active push is underway by state GOP grandees to cast Christie as a forthright national leader, not just a YouTube star who spars with teachers. New Jersey Republicans rarely become national power brokers, which is one reason Christie’s friends want Romney to elevate him. In background conversations, many of them speak more about his pragmatism and his policy smarts than about his famous outbursts during the state’s budget wars.
“The [vice-presidential] attention is well deserved,” says Nicholas F. Brady, a former United States senator from New Jersey and secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. “Maybe some would be turned off by his direct approach, but I think people appreciate it. They like it when someone tells it like it is.”
One of Christie’s mentors, former governor Tom Kean, tells National Review Online that Christie did not feel ready to run for president last summer, but with regard to the number-two spot, he’s more than prepared. And with President Obama running a Chicago-style brass-knuckles campaign, Kean says, Christie’s tenacious personality would surely be an asset during the general election.
Kean takes care to frame Christie’s response to the chatter as “honest and candid,” not as part of some strategy or quiet campaign to win Romney’s affection. “He does not want to be vice president,” Kean says. “But he recognizes that if Governor Romney puts the pressure on, he’ll have to think about it hard. That’s what he’s said publicly, and that is what he has told me privately.”
Last week Christie stumped for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who faces a recall election next month. He boosted Walker, calling him “courageous” for battling Big Labor. He also touted his own accomplishments in a deep-blue state, where he has proposed various austerity measures and tax reductions.
“Because of what we’ve done over the last two years, New Jersey now spends more time being talked about on the Sunday talk shows than the late-night talk shows,” Christie said. “If conservative values can work in New Jersey, conservative values can work in Wisconsin and in every other corner of America. We’ve got to stand up.”
Badger State conservatives, according to news reports, embraced Christie and enthusiastically discussed the upside of putting him on the Republican ticket.
Once he returned home, Christie couldn’t avoid the veep fervor. When it came up at a town-hall meeting in Plainsboro, N.J., Christie reiterated his commitment to staying in Trenton. “I really love this job,” he said.
But Christie also had a fresh caveat: “If Governor Romney called and asked me to sit down and talk to him about it, I’d listen, because I think you owe the nominee of your party that level of respect,” he told the crowd. “He might be able to convince me; he’s a convincing guy.”
New Jersey Republicans applaud Christie’s rise but worry that if he goes to Washington, he may leave a vacuum in the state, where the Republican bench isn’t very deep. A Quinnipiac poll last month showed Christie’s approval rating at 59 percent, his highest-ever mark while in office.
“As an elected official, I’d hate to see him go, because I don’t think he can be easily replaced,” says Vic Sordillo, a deputy mayor in Warren, N.J., and a state committeeman. “He’s such an outspoken character, so I understand why there is interest. But I’m not sure it’s time for him to leave the work he’s doing here in New Jersey.”
Presidential historian Alvin Felzenberg says Christie’s flair at using national television coverage and the web to share his gubernatorial record and leadership style will likely sustain the vice-presidential talk until Romney settles on a pick. For Christie, he says, who will face a tough reelection battle next year, it’s a win-win scenario.
“Christie has captivated the national media,” Felzenberg says, instead of simply looking to impress the New York–area media, which would leave him “competing with the politicians across the [Hudson] river for the cameras.” He adds that Christie, unlike many northeastern Republicans, has been able to develop his own political brand, one that’s not tied to a demographic or a region. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, for example, are considered vice-presidential contenders because of their popularity in their respective swing states. But Christie is popular all over. This is an important aspect of his career, one that’s separate from the vice-presidential sweepstakes.
Christie’s advisers argue that the media attention isn’t something they seek, pointing out that Christie rarely grants the kind of sit-down interviews with national outlets that stir vice-presidential rumblings. But behind the scenes, Team Christie is quietly confident that should Romney ask Christie to be on the shortlist, they’ll be able to handle the ordeal, and should he be picked, to quickly adjust to the new role.
In many respects, Christie already has a national-level political presence and team in place, from his role at the Republican Governors Association, where he serves as vice chairman, to his inner circle, where senior advisers such as Mike DuHaime and Bill Palatucci provide national fundraising connections and presidential-campaign experience.
Christie has also been vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A decade ago, the FBI conducted an extensive background check on Christie before he became United States Attorney. This investigation is different from that done on most veep candidates, many of whom have been vetted only by Beltway attorneys and members of the press.
As the buzz increases, not every Republican in New Jersey is eager to see Christie gain more prominence. GOP pollster Rick Shaftan, who was a strategist for Steve Lonegan, Christie’s primary challenger, in 2009, thinks Romney would make a mistake by selecting the incumbent governor. “It’d be a replay of the 1948 campaign,” he says, with the GOP led to defeat by moderates.
“Christie isn’t a real conservative,” Shaftan says. “He has appointed liberal Democrats to his cabinet and he has appointed left-wingers to the state Supreme Court.” Conservatives may cheer Christie’s teacher tangles, he says, but they won’t cheer his ideological positions.
To no one’s surprise, Christie confidants disagree. They say the governor is not losing the trust of the Tea Party and conservatives, even as he reaches out to moderates on education and pension reform. Most poll numbers, they point out, show his favorability among Republicans to be in the 90-plus range, and among independents and centrists, he often draws a majority.
Part of the reason for this continued success, Governor Kean says, is due to Christie’s broadening of his message in policy speeches at the Reagan Library and a Bush Institute event. As Kean sees it, Christie has become much more than a town-hall performer; he’s a viable vice president because of his principles and how he articulates them.
“If the Romney people are smart, and they are, they’ll give him a major speaking role at the convention,” Kean says. If it’s as a surrogate, that’s fine, he says, but as Romney’s running mate? In New Jersey, at least, the idea is gaining steam.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.