Christie gets wary welcome among religious conservatives

Gov. Christie speaks at the three-day conference of religious conservatives in Washington. Later Friday, he jetted to political events in New Hampshire.
Gov. Christie speaks at the three-day conference of religious conservatives in Washington. Later Friday, he jetted to political events in New Hampshire. (MOLLY RILEY / AP)
Posted: June 22, 2014

WASHINGTON - Gov. Christie affirmed his "pro-life" views before a gathering of religious conservatives here Friday, reaching out to a vocal Republican bloc on an issue he rarely emphasizes in New Jersey.

But as he spoke to religious voters who can be influential in GOP presidential primaries, Christie also tied his views to causes with middle-ground appeal, saying that valuing life also means taking a less-punitive approach to drug addiction and boosting education for all children.

"I believe if you're pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life," Christie told about 400 conservative activists at a conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. "You can't just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb."

A mixed reaction from those listening - including some who believed Christie could broaden the GOP's appeal, and others who said he is not conservative enough - encapsulated the Republican divide when it comes to New Jersey's governor.

The coalition is led by Christian activist Ralph Reed and aims to elect "pro-family" lawmakers. The three-day conference drew many of the Republicans jockeying for the party's 2016 presidential nomination, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, Govs. Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Christie, as he continues to try to slog his way out of the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, also Friday jetted to political events in New Hampshire - the critical second state, after Iowa, in the race for presidential nominations.

After he spoke in Washington, Christina Gusella and two friends - all rising college seniors - said the governor appealed to younger voters because of his more inclusive message and his willingness to work with Democrats.

"If the Republican Party wants to see someone back in the White House, that's what the Republican Party needs," said Gusella, who is from Alexandria, Va., and attends the University of Alabama. "I like how moderate he is."

Michelle Rivera, a 45-year-old Middletown, N.J., resident, said, "I love the guy," praising his temperament as a leader, but acknowledged that "he's got his work cut out for him" when it comes to religious conservatives.

Take, for example, Jeffrey Wells of McLean, Va.

"I'd vote for him over an Obama or a Hillary any day," Wells said, but he'd rather back someone more conservative.

"Ever since the big hug, he's lost so much credibility with me," Wells said, referring to Christie's embrace of President Obama shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and weeks before Obama's reelection.

Another listener - William J. Murray, head of the Washington-based Religious Freedom Coalition - saw Christie as more of an economic conservative than a true social conservative, such as Paul or Santorum.

He said the standing ovation for Christie was a show of appreciation that he showed up in potentially hostile territory rather than an embrace of his record.

"It took a lot of guts to show up here," said Murray, 68.

Christie, who has long said he opposes abortion but has not made the issue a priority in New Jersey, was introduced as the state's first antiabortion governor since Roe v. Wade.

"I believe that every life is a gift from God that's precious and must be protected," Christie said.

He then pivoted to drug abuse and schools - two causes he has often emphasized as the Republican leader of a deep-blue state.

Christie, as he has before, said the so-called war on drugs "hasn't worked" and called for more treatment.

"What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to be able to get the tools they need," to recover, he said.

He later stressed some of his signature causes on education: charter schools and battling teacher unions.

"Every child has the right to reach his or her full potential," Christie said, "and it's our obligation as leaders in this society to speak out for them."

Christie concluded his 21-minute speech by hammering Obama on foreign policy, blaming international unrest on a failure to speak "clearly, profoundly," and "inspirationally," and to draw firm lines between ally and adversary.

Later, in New Hampshire, Christie campaigned with Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein in Bedford, a suburb of Manchester. Together, they made the rounds at T-Bones, part of a local restaurant chain.

"I know what it's like to be a challenger against an incumbent governor in a Northeastern state as a Republican," said Christie, who beat Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2009.

Havenstein, a businessman and veteran, is running in a primary against entrepreneur and conservative activist Andrew Hemingway. The winner will face off against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said his trip was "absolutely not" about a possible campaign in 2016: "I'm here to make sure Walt has the best campaign . . . he can possibly have."

Christie and Havenstein also attended a private fund-raiser at a home in Atkinson, where tickets were advertised at $35, and $500 for a VIP meeting beforehand. About 200 people attended, according to a Havenstein spokesman.

Christie skipped the Faith and Freedom conference last year. He instead attended a symposium in Chicago sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, the group led by former President Bill Clinton.


Inquirer staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.

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