6 Nov 2013

Chris Christie: a big man about to get a whole lot bigger

Chris Christie can reach voters other Republicans cannot. He has just been re-elected New Jersey governor and people are asking if he could bulldoze his way to the White House, writes Inigo Gilmore.

Standing outside Hot Dog Johnny’s in Buttzville, New Jersey, there were whoops of delight and chants of “Four more years!” as Governor Christie’s campaign bus rolled into view.

Bouncing out of the bus it was hugs all round as the larger than life Christie was enveloped by the waiting crowd. A silver-haired woman, clearly emotional, stepped forward and clasped him tight. As she showered his chunky cheeks with kisses, she whispered words of encouragement.

Chris Christie was loving it. The big man of New Jersey politics was never going to miss Hot Dog Johnny’s, a landmark local eaterie on route 46, where people have come from miles around to wolf down hot dogs since 1944.

Heading inside the hotdog joint, cameras and adoring fans trailing, Christie bellowed: “Is this the Hot Dog Johnny staff?” He moved in among the men and women to clasp hands, give big bear hugs and patiently pose for photos.

I managed to get up reasonably close and personal with the governor inside Hot Dog Johnny’s kitchen, where I found him on a phone, barking at the person at the end of the line to come down and order some food. Carefully taking my position by the kitchen door, as he marched out he nearly ran me down.

‘Isn’t that nice of them?’

When I mentioned that some Democrats in the crowd had told me they wanted him to run for president, he coyly replied: “Well, isn’t that nice of them?” When I pressed him and asked what he thought about such a prospect, he said he had the governor’s election to think of. He joked with customers that they should be nice to us as we were British guests in New Jersey and joshed about “the special relationship”.

He moved over to a group of women, who told him they were Democrats. “First governor, then president,” one woman said as she embraced him. Smiling broadly, he continued signing autographs as he turned to one of his campaign aides and said with satisfaction: “This is a special campaign. Democrats from Elizabeth.” Oozing confidence, he gave me a cheeky wink.

New Jersey is home to Tony Soprano. Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, hailed from here too. Once famed as the most corrupt state in the nation, it’s a gritty, no-nonsense place. Now it’s also home of the man hailed by some as the saviour of the Republican party.

The governor

Governor Christie was be re-elected for a second term running this industrial state on Tuesday. But everyone here’s already asking whether the brash local lad – simply known as “the governor” – could bulldoze his way into the White House.

Even though less than 20 per cent of voters here are registered Republicans, Christie was expected to win by a landslide.

His goal was not just to win big but to show he can reach voters other Republicans can’t – particularly Hispanics and African Americans. He’s against abortion and same-sex marriage but has built his reputation by finding areas of compromise with his political opponents.

At another campaign stop I asked what the Republican party can learn from his success. “Everyone has to figure it out for themselves,” he told Channel 4 News. “Each campaign is unique.” He then added: “We will have to see. I am just going to do what I do.”

Recognising Christie’s unique appeal, Mitt Romney’s team invited the governor to campaign with the Republican presidential candidate. At the time, Christie indicated he didn’t want to run for president himself because of concerns over his health. He’s since shed a lot of weight after gastric band surgery.

But bigger concerns among Republicans stem from way he famously embraced Barack Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, right before the election. It was seen as a factor in denting Romney’s hopes at a critical moment.

Choosing state over party was seen by many in the party as an act of betrayal. Tea Party activists and other conservative critics have not forgotten and suggest he will never be able to win over the conservative base of the party.

‘The next president’

If national ambitions are to be realised, Chris Christie will need the conservative base of the party. At another rally we followed him to, gun owners were his target. He was introduced as “the next president of the United States” to loud cheers.

He spoke about protecting hunting and gun rights, to the delight of his audience. “We need to show the Republican party in America that we can win again,” he bellowed.

If he crushes his rival, as expected, Christie shows you can be conservative and appeal to a wider America. New Jersey’s big man is about to get a whole lot bigger.