Christie Maintains a Political Balancing Act
CHICAGO -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is walking a political tightrope as he charts his future, trying to balance his re-election campaign in a Democratic-leaning state with a potential presidential bid aimed at winning over Republicans.
His latest challenge: appearing with former President Bill Clinton in Chicago at the risk of alienating religious conservatives being wooed in Washington by other potential GOP presidential candidates.
Christie has pitched himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan leader as he seeks a second term as governor this fall. Participating in the Clinton Global Initiative America’s meeting on Friday gives him a chance to appear with the popular ex-president - the event was billed "Cooperation and Collaboration: A Conversation on Leadership" - and to talk about tackling problems like New Jersey’s recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
In Washington the same day, evangelical conservatives gathered for Ralph Reed’s annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. Republican presidential hopefuls tackled heated issues like abortion and immigration - policy debates that may shape the future of the GOP. Activists attending the conference questioned Christie’s priorities.
"He can’t spend 10 minutes just to make an appearance?" asked Ginger Howard, a Christian conservative who hosts an Atlanta radio show. "People who neglect us are sorry."
Christie has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to highlight his centrist, above-politics approach. The governor picked up endorsements earlier this week from home-state Democrats and appeared with Obama along the Jersey Shore late last month to tout the region’s recovery from a devastating storm. It was Christie’s second joint appearance with Obama along the coast, the first coming a week before the 2012 election in a move that caused some conservatives to charge that it undermined Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group created by the influential former Christian Coalition leader, featured appearances from several Republicans thought to be weighing presidential bids. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the opening luncheon, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate last year, and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, among others.
In many cases, they rejected calls for a moderate approach to explosive issues like gay marriage and immigration, insisting that Republicans double down on their conservative ideals as they look to rebuild after President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Christie avoided the issues completely by not showing up.
"Chris Christie is dangerously close to sending conservative Republicans a clear message that he doesn’t care about their thoughts or views," said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a veteran of presidential politics. "Spending time with Barack Obama is one thing, but when he goes out of his way to spend time with Bill Clinton it begins looking like a pattern of behavior that will alienate Republican voters - and conservatives in particular."
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the Clinton Global event "presented a platform for Gov. Christie to discuss post-Sandy economic recovery, rebuilding and the kind of bipartisan problem solving that was needed to help New Jersey after its greatest natural disaster."
Christie’s political team remains focused on his re-election campaign, setting aside any potential presidential ambitions ahead of the November election. But the appearance alongside Clinton could have benefits.