Christie fans flames of speculation on a presidential run

Posted: September 29, 2011

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - The speech that could have clarified it all did anything but.

In front of 1,000 devoted Republicans, a national TV audience, and Nancy Reagan herself in the front row, Gov. Christie could have said Tuesday night: "I am not running for president in 2012."

Instead, the surging non-candidate-of-the-moment charmed, joked, and answered the "Will you run?" question by referring the audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum to an online video compilation of his previous declarations against running.

That answer - coupled with a string of recent news stories featuring unnamed sources saying Christie either was not running or was possibly reconsidering a run - was interpreted differently across the media.

The Wall Street Journal's headline, "After Christie Speech, Answer Still 'no'," and the Christian Science Monitor's "Christie Tells California Audience He Won't Enter 2012 Presidential Race" conflicted with Yahoo's assertion that Christie "hints he might reconsider" and Politico's conclusion that "Christie Leaves 2012 Run Question Open." According to Slate, he ducked the question.

Such journalistic confusion is not a reflection of poor reporting, says pollster Patrick Murray of Monmouth University. It is being sowed by the Christie camp and perpetuated by the evasiveness of Christie's recent remarks.

"The buzz was not initially of his own making, but his advisers quickly saw how they could make it work to Christie's advantage," Murray said in an e-mail. "So far they have been pretty astute in having these rumors attributed to sources outside the inner circle."

Word that Christie is running has been spread, for example, by unnamed sources "familiar with the governor's thinking." Sources may have inflated their closeness to the governor for their own self-interest, or those sources may have been given the green light to talk even as some of Christie's closest advisers swatted down speculation.

But the hype also is lingering because of other recent tidbits: A new $1.5 million pro-Christie ad campaign started by Christie's college friends that opens by criticizing Washington politics; an assertion by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean that Christie is mulling a run; and a cross-country Christie fund-raising tour this week.

And, finally, the Reagan library speech Tuesday night - where Christie mocked President Obama, criticized GOP front-runner Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and delved into the very non-gubernatorial realm of national security.

If there is a coordinated effort to allow the presidential rumor mill to keep churning, it might not be because Christie wants to run. It might simply be good for business.

Christie's star power has helped him raise lots of cash for the state GOP, which could help the minority Republicans in the November legislative elections and then Christie himself for a possible reelection campaign in 2013.

"He raises a lot more money for the state GOP, and ultimately for his 2013 reelection bid, if national GOP donors think they are paying to shake hands with a potential presidential contender rather than just some ordinary governor," Murray said.

The notoriety also raises Christie's profile for a possible 2016 presidential run - making him a top contender if Obama wins reelection. The notoriety could set Christie up for a future presidential cabinet position, or even just a keynote speech at the Republican convention next summer.

Much of this speculation has been blamed on the media.

To be sure, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and proliferation of online news sites create something of a mind-bending echo chamber.

Before Tuesday's speech, an article on the Huffington Post website declared that Christie was not running, only to cite unnamed sources in the final line saying he was. Since most news reports about a Christie run have been based on unspecified sources - or, as with one Fox News report, no attribution at all - confusion reigns.

But the media have based at least part of the buzz off observations of a real clamoring for Christie - as evidenced by repeated requests to run among the party faithful at the Reagan library.

At one point a man called Christie a "straight-shooter" and asked whether he was really "reconsidering."

Christie responded by jokingly chiding the audience for waiting until the second question to ask him about this. Then he said the "answers" were on the Politico website, which had posted a compilation of his deflections and denials.

After a woman begged Christie to run - "Do it for the grandchildren, do it for our sons, please, sir, we need you, our country needs you" - a standing ovation ensued.

Christie responded by saying that the plea "touches" him as "just a kid from Jersey."

"So my answer to you is just this: I thank you for what you're saying and I'm taking it in and feeling it too. . . . That's why this country is a great place because of folks like you, thank you," he said.

Those were his final remarks of the night.

Murray said Christie could have ended the speculation right there, by saying that the United States might "need" him but New Jerseyans "need" him, too.

"It was the perfect opportunity to quell the rumors, but he didn't take it," Murray said. Instead, he became "party to it."

Long flirtations are part of Christie's political history. He did the same in the run-up to the 2005 gubernatorial race, before releasing a statement exactly a year before the election saying he wanted to remain U.S. attorney.

David Norcross, a Republican player in the state and country for several decades, said Christie was far too grounded to be tempted to run if he's not ready.

"If there's anyone who knows his own mind, it's Chris Christie," Norcross said.

But if Christie is reconsidering a run, some say it's doable, even at this late hour in the process.

Candy Straight, a New Jersey Republican activist and fund-raiser, said there was still plenty of Republican money out there, with deep-pocketed donors not yet committed to a candidate. The interest spiked after the Reagan library speech, she said.

"There's a lot on the table," she said. And if someone like Christie were to jump in, "I think that money would flock."

The filing deadline to get into the Florida primary is Oct. 31. But Straight said if a real "leader" wants in after that, it's doable.

"If that leader decides in December, and the American people decide they want that person," she said, "I think [that person] can become president of the United States."


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

 

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