Christie Strikes Moderate Tone in Campaign Kickoff

Christie Strikes Moderate Tone in Campaign Kickoff
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LIVINGSTON, N.J.—Chris Christie launched his presidential campaign from the hometown where it all began, particularly the high school where he served as student body president. But in many ways, the New Jersey governor’s trip down memory lane also marked a new beginning for him as he charts an uphill climb to the Republican nomination. 

Facing a crowded Republican primary field and his own low standing at home and in early-voting state polls, the man known for telling people to “sit down and shut up” pitched himself as a more tempered leader who craves compromise and reform. Standing in the middle of the Livingston High School gymnasium, beside his wife and four children, Christie was more conciliator than combatant. 

“Americans are not angry. Americans are filled with anxiety,” the governor told a few hundred supporters gathered in a muggy gym, outside of which hung a picture of the 1980 Livingston Lancers baseball team that included Christie.  

Americans see a government that no longer works because people “don’t talk with each other anymore,” the latest entrant in the 2016 GOP sweepstakes said, building a stump speech without written notes or the help of a teleprompter. “Both parties have failed the country,” he asserted. America was built on compromise, “which is now considered a dirty word.” 

Despite the moderate tone of his announcement speech, Christie pledged not to abandon the no-nonsense style for which he is well known. His campaign will be about “big ideas and hard truths,” he said, standing before an American flag and the Lancers scoreboard. 

“I mean what I say and I say what I mean,” Christie said to applause. 

He promised a campaign “without spin or pandering” or focus-group-tested messages. Instead, he would be “telling it like it is” -- the official theme of his campaign -- “whether you like it or not, or whether it makes you cringe.” 

Christie’s brand of brashness and “straight talk” has both galvanized supporters and fired up detractors. “I love the gov,” said Sharron Crooker of Boonton, one of those who came to hear Christie launch his campaign. “We need someone who will tell it like it is.” 

But that brand has been undermined by a certain traffic scandal involving the George Washington Bridge and subsequent criminal charges brought against members of Christie’s administration, one of whom has pled guilty.  

The governor’s supporters insist “Bridgegate” is a non-starter, something only his rivals care about. “The issues that other candidates have are much greater than that, when you’re talking about what Hillary Clinton has done with the emails and the deals that were made, and money,” said Geraldine Finnegan, a retired teacher who lives in Manchester, N.J. “A traffic jam in New Jersey is nothing new and the governor had nothing to do with it.” 

“He speaks his mind, and people really understand him,” said Finnegan’s husband, Michael, a retired police officer. “There are some people who don’t like him; they’ll do anything they can to frame him.” 

Still, even before the scandal Christie had turned off some conservatives with his more moderate stances on some issues, and his literal embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy struck the Jersey Shore shortly before the 2012 election. 

Christie was once heralded by Republicans as strong contender for the nomination, especially after winning re-election in 2013 with over 60 percent of the vote in a blue state -- including significant numbers from minority groups and women. Supporters saw his no-holds-barred style as a welcome contrast and relief to Mitt Romney’s. 

That luster has faded as other, shinier candidates have come into view, and as opponents inside the Garden State point to New Jersey’s weakened economy and several rounds of credit downgrades. Though supporters praised the governor’s handling of the hurricane response, thousands of families are still displaced. 

Christie now enters the field as candidate No. 14, and is garnering 4 percent of the support in the RCP average of national polls

But the ups and downs of the past aren’t stopping the governor, who took the stage on Tuesday to the Bon Jovi lyrics “We weren’t born to follow/ You gotta stand up for what you believe.” (Earlier in the day, the recording artist held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton.”) Christie pointed to his two terms as governor, where he said he reformed teacher tenure and health benefits, balanced six budgets, and refused to raise taxes.  

“You’re not going to have to wonder whether I can do it or not,” he said, calling for reforms to the tax code, growing the economy, lessening the role of government, and re-establishing America as a world power. Christie also reiterated his support for substantial reform of Medicare and Social Security – topics typically considered too dangerous to touch in election campaigns. Otherwise, the governor was short on specifics and long on American Dream rhetoric, a theme many of his fellow candidates have echoed. 

Christie didn’t ding his GOP rivals, which he has done in the past, but did take a shot at presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, whom he called “Obama’s second mate” when it comes to foreign policy. 

The style, tone, and substance of the speech previewed what voters might expect in New Hampshire, where Christie plans to focus his campaign. His penchant for town-hall gatherings and “straight talk” figure to resonate in the Granite State, his campaign believes, and Christie’s road to the nomination depends on doing well there. But he has plenty of company in that regard, as rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich view the nation’s first primary as integral to their ambitions as well. 

Like Christie, his supporters don’t believe he has missed his chance. “You don’t know unless you try, so you’ve got to give it a shot,” said Anthony Falcone, a CPA from Livingston who went to school with Christie and has been voting for him since middle school. “I think he can turn it around with town halls,” Falcone added, noting that Christie can be a viable candidate “if he gets to the people.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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