Thomas Fitzgerald: As Christie chorus grows louder, rest of GOP field watches

Gov. Christie works a crowd in Baton Rouge, La. He would face a number of challenges if he got into the race at this late date.
Gov. Christie works a crowd in Baton Rouge, La. He would face a number of challenges if he got into the race at this late date. (PATRICK DENNIS / Associated Press)
Posted: October 02, 2011

 Once again, Republican elites and activists are praying for a savior to rise from these streets.

They want a true conservative, one who hasn't wavered from the faith. They want a candidate with the charisma of Ronald Reagan, the populist appeal of a political outsider, and the insider fluency to be able to cream President Obama.

This time, Gov. Christie is listening to the entreaties from influential corners of the GOP on making a late entry into the unsettled presidential race. A source close to Christie said he was reconsidering his earlier refusals, which included insisting he was not ready to be president.

All of which can't be fun for the rest of the field.

"I can't control what other people do," Mitt Romney told MSNBC when asked about the latest yearning for an alternative to him. Romney was governor of Massachusetts, ran for president in 2008, has risen above his rivals in three debates, and has a well-organized campaign, but he has not been able to ease the wariness of some conservatives who mistrust his evolution from earlier moderate positions.

It's not going to get easier for Romney - or any contender - to solidify support when buzz builds every few months around another supposed supercandidate who is going to unite the disparate factions of the party.

Such hopes have rested, however fleetingly, on Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels; Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Sarah Palin - and now Christie. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) soared for a time but has seen her support dwindle.

The Christie chorus reached new heights after Perry, the most recent dream candidate, had a series of shaky debate performances and lost a Sept. 24 straw-poll vote in Florida. Christie didn't knock down speculation during a national fund-raising tour and speech Tuesday at the Reagan library in California.

He has crowded out almost all the other narratives in the Republican race for now.

"All of these sorts of boomlets undermine the ability of the existing candidates in the field to gain traction," a veteran national GOP strategist said. "The flip side of the coin is that if [the declared candidates] were firing up and motivating people, there would not be this constant yearning."

That's common in presidential politics, though. In 2008, GOP conservatives clamored for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. He ran, but his heart was not in it and he flopped. In 1996, the object of lust was Colin Powell, who declined to run.

Democrats pined for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in late 1991, and he debated until the last minute whether to file papers to enter New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. CNN had live cameras trained on Cuomo's chartered jet at the Albany airport and at the New Hampshire statehouse. He pulled the plug.

Analysts and strategists say Christie's blunt style matches the mood of an electorate eager for unscripted truth-telling. As Hurricane Irene approached New Jersey in August, Christie told people to "get the hell off the beach!" He has tangled with public-employee unions and slashed state spending; he has dismissed criticism as "stupid," "crap," and "insane."

Polls show Christie can draw support from both the tea party and establishment wings of the party, though one strategist says the governor's appeal to conservatives "might not be fully sustainable" once some of his more moderate positions become known.

He has supported the federal ban on assault weapons, once favored abortion rights, and has said illegal immigration is an "administrative matter," not a crime. Still, fans say he'd attract independents and put Northeastern states in play, helping build a case for his electability.

"If he gets in, he'd be the real deal," said Dave Carney, Perry's chief political adviser, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Perry did not enter the race until August, though aides had quietly established organizations in key states, and his stumbles show what a tough climb Christie could have in getting in so late. Carney thinks the logistical barriers for Christie would be "difficult but not insurmountable."

The New Jersey governor has a cadre of ultra-rich New York businessmen urging him on, and they have already pledged to help him raise cash and establish a Christie "superPAC" that can spend unrestricted money independent of the campaign.

"It's not just a function of money - it's time," Carney said. "The real question is: Do you want to do this seven days a week? . . . You don't get a lot of breaks. You don't get a second chance to make the first impression."

And the calendar just shrank: Florida decided to hold its primary Jan. 31, setting off a scramble by Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to schedule their contests earlier, the better to preserve their coveted places at the head of the line.

"I don't think you can run for president without two solid years of planning and preparation," longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone said. "Logistically, it's extremely difficult."

But hardly impossible, says Republican consultant Mike Hudhome. One early win by Christie, he predicts, and "all of a sudden he becomes the giant-slayer, and it is a national campaign, all about momentum."

Romney's camp underscored the challenge Thursday, trumpeting its qualification for next year's Vermont primary ballot by gathering double the required 1,000 signatures. That kind of detail-oriented grunt work enabled Obama to outlast Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic battle.

"Rick Perry is a bit of a cautionary tale of just how difficult it is to mount a national campaign," said New Hampshire consultant Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman. "Everyone in New Hampshire who is even remotely an activist has seen Mitt Romney at a state Republican dinner, at a Republican county picnic.. . . That builds up a lot of goodwill that gives you the benefit of the doubt when you slip up."

And even saviors slip up now and then.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at philly.com/bigtent.

Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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