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.”
“Now, of course, she was talking about women,” Christie chuckled, but the larger political point was obvious to the cheering delegates.
“Christie is one of the party’s role models,” says Bill Bennett, a former education secretary in the Reagan administration. “As with Scott Walker and Paul Ryan, he is one of the people out there leading on policy. Having him give this speech reflects the sheer joy the Christies and Walkers of the world have brought to the party.”
Christie’s prime-time speaking spot also reflects the growth of the Republican party into the largely liberal enclaves of the Northeast. “Look at the shift,” Bennett says. “This once southern, Evangelical Christian party has moved very much to the North and the Midwest, and keeps the South with it. Christie’s speech is another testament to the growth of the party, and an important one.”
Christie’s fundamental case was that his experience in New Jersey should be a lesson to Washington’s leaders, and that Romney is a kindred spirit who believes in similar conservative principles and shares his impulse to “govern,” rather than politick.
“They said it was impossible to touch the third rail of politics,” Christie said. “To take on the public-sector unions and to reform a pension and health-benefit system that was headed to bankruptcy. With bipartisan leadership we saved taxpayers $132 billion over 30 years and saved retirees their pensions. We did it.”
Later, Christie emphasized that the steps he has taken to reform New Jersey’s pension system, though difficult, are a variation of what Romney would prioritize. “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest health-care system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor,” he said.
Ultimately, however, the speech was about a philosophy of leadership rather than the ascent of Romney or specific policies. People respond to conservative ideas, he said, but Americans need to elect a president who can communicate those ideas, not only on television but also on Capitol Hill. He praised Representative Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, as an able and willing legislator.
“America needs Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and we need them right now,” Christie said. “It’s time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House.”
“With the pick of Christie to give the keynote, and the pick of Ryan as vice president, Mitt Romney has shown us a lot of reformist angles,” says Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary. “Mitt Romney is buttoned down, but if he’s the real deal like these Republican governors, these things suggest that there is another side to Romney, a real reformist side, that we don’t know about.”
Earlier Tuesday, Christie told the convention’s Michigan delegation, in a brief speech, that he was energized about stepping into the spotlight. “I’m just hoping to break out of my shell tonight,” he said, to laughs. “I think by 10:30 tonight I’m going to be a little bit like that horse in the gate at the Kentucky Derby, waiting for the bell to go, banging up against the gate.”
And on ABC’s Good Morning America, Christie pledged to stay true to his personality. “I think if the American people watch tonight, leave the speech by saying, ‘Yep, that’s him, that’s who I heard about, seems genuine to me,’ then I think I will have done my job for me,” he said. “And if they say, ‘I like the vision he has laid out for the country and for his party for the next four years,’ then I will have done the job for my party and my country.”
Christie has given high-profile speeches before, most notably a speech at the Ronald Reagan presidential library last year, and at a recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Chicago. At the Reagan library, Christie told the crowd to take the high road, even when it is tempting to vilify Democrats. “We are a better people than that, and we must demand a better nation that that,” he said. “We have failed to live up to our own tradition of exceptionalism.”
But this speech, though similar in tone to the Reagan talk, was different. It was Christie rallying the troops as expected but also an attempt to elevate the debate, and to celebrate a presidential nominee who, in his opinion, is doing just that. Instead of excoriating the unmentioned president, he urged delegates to make a worthy argument about the future. And he did this mostly with broad strokes, not by pounding Obama’s record.
“The disciples of yesterday’s politics underestimated the will of the people,” Christie said. “They assumed our people were selfish; that when told of the difficult problems, tough choices, and complicated solutions, they would simply turn their backs, that they would decide it was every man for himself.”
To all the naysayers, Christie said, “I have faith in us.”
“We have never been victims of destiny,” Christie said. “We have always been masters of our own. I won’t be part of the generation that fails that test, and neither will you.”
In the end, there was humor, and there were soaring lines. Most of all, though, it was the presentation of a governor not as a pit bull but a statesman.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.