Christie talks of next campaign - to elect other GOP governors

Gov. Christie, new chief of the Republican Governors Association, speaks at the conference in Ariz. He sits next to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Gov. Christie, new chief of the Republican Governors Association, speaks at the conference in Ariz. He sits next to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. (RALPH FRESO / AP)
Posted: November 23, 2013

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Gov. Christie took on a job Thursday seen as a political boon and potential launching pad for a presidential bid, becoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

But the governor who has emerged as one of the Republican Party's leading voices - one many hope can lead the GOP back to victory - insisted his focus was on next year's gubernatorial elections, not the national race in 2016.

"We have 20 incumbent [Republican] governors up in 2014, and I think any one of us in our individual capacity or many of us as leaders of this organization . . . start thinking about 2016 at our own peril, but, worse, at the peril of our colleagues," Christie said in his only public appearance at the conference.

There will be 36 gubernatorial elections next year.

Calling it "an honor" to be named chairman, Christie said his "sole focus over the course of the next 11 months" would be helping Republicans win elections across the country.

Among them are Gov. Corbett, whose dismal poll numbers have invited a bevy of challengers. Corbett was one of five Republican governors who did not attend the conference, staying in Harrisburg as lawmakers voted on a sweeping transportation bill.

The 2016 presidential race, Christie said, is "a long way away, and I'm two weeks out of a campaign, and I'm not looking to start speculating about other campaigns already."

It's a refrain Christie will likely offer for many months, as speculation - some stoked by his own comments - swirls around his political future. But a query about 2016 was the first one he got in a morning news conference with three other Republican governors.

"I'm stunned that we've gotten that question right out of the box," Christie deadpanned.

While the 2016 probing stems in part from the media's pursuit of new horse races, the questions were also prompted by the political perks of Christie's new position. As chairman, he will travel the country on behalf of fellow governors, raising money and distributing it. The RGA said Thursday that it had more than $45 million on hand.

He'll pick up political chits and fund-raising contacts, and have a chance to showcase his message and style to audiences far and wide.

In doing so, Christie will also try to boost other leading Republicans as the GOP attempts to recover from self-inflicted wounds that have cratered its standing in public opinion polls. Over and over at the two-day conference here at the Phoenician resort, governors insisted that their tangible work in statehouses offered a stark counterpoint to Washington's political gridlock.

And while the GOP governors usually blamed "Washington" as a whole, it was clear that much of their wrath was tied to the recent government shutdown, a political wreck driven by the most ideological elements of the Republican Party.

"What you've seen over the last two days is the incredible contrast between what you see being discussed here and accomplished by the people on this stage . . . as opposed to what's going on in Washington, D.C.," Christie said. "Everyone up here has strongly held beliefs and convictions . . . but we also know we have a job to do."

He spoke as the Senate sank to new levels of rancor as Democrats took up the so-called nuclear option in a fight over presidential nominees.

Christie argued that the best way to boost the GOP's sagging fortunes was to make sure that strong governors win and to demonstrate that Republican ideas can work when freed from the political mud pits in the capital.

"It's what these folks are doing every day in their states that will help to reconfigure the image of the movement of our party," Christie said, stressing the importance of the RGA in helping Republican governors win. "If you don't win, you don't get a chance to govern, and if you don't govern, you don't get a chance to change the course of your state."

The Democratic Governors Association argued in an open memo that Republican governors, though, were trying to carry out the same conservative agenda that "the House GOP could only dream of getting done," accusing the party's various state chief executives of cutting taxes for the rich and assailing abortion rights.

Christie will still have to tend to his record at home, as failure in New Jersey would be the fastest way to undermine any hopes to higher office. Christie said he already has experience campaigning for others and balancing those trips with his work in Trenton.

"I have two obligations," he said. "My first and most important job is being governor of New Jersey, and I'll continue to make that my No. 1 priority. No. 2 is being chairman of RGA, and I'll be able to balance those two."

He largely attended closed-door meetings, along with top political aides. Also along was former Sen. Jeffrey S. Chiesa, who was appointed by Christie to temporarily fill the seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, and was the governor's attorney general. Chiesa now works in private law practice.

Of course, the questions eventually returned to presidential speculation.

One reporter asked South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley - seated next to Christie - how voters in her state would react to a candidate who had gone along with part of President Obama's health law by expanding Medicaid.

The implications were clear. South Carolina is a conservative and critical early-primary state, and Christie is one of a handful of Republican governors to accept federal money to expand Medicaid - a position at odds with many conservative voters.

"The people of South Carolina look at all issues, and they look at who is the best person who will fight," Haley said. "I think it's going to be an issue, certainly, that is talked about, just like others. I don't think it's going to be the sole issue."


jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

www.inquirer.com/capitolinq

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