These days, Chris Christie will go just about anywhere. He no longer wants to be seen as the in-your-face governor of New Jersey, but as the genial ambassador from the Republican Governors Association who just wants to help, or as the non-presidential candidate, who just wants to wander Iowa and New Hampshire.
Last week, he showed up in Washington to speak to a gathering organized by Ralph Reed -- the disgraced ally of gambling lobbyist-felon Jack Abramoff -- who is now running a successor group to the Christian Coalition.
There were only about 350 people in the audience, but enough to give Christie a partial standing ovation in recognition of his anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage record. He was there as a governor in sync with the group despite being a suspect blue state moderate -- not as a presidential candidate. But everyone else treated the event as a cattle call for Republicans thinking of running. Many of the would-be contenders -- Senators Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as former Governor Arkansas Mike Huckabee -- also turned up.
The occasion was a reprise of a Christie appearance earlier in the year at the annual meeting of Conservative Political Action Committee, which had snubbed him the year before because of his Hurricane Sandy bromance with President Barack Obama. Christie carried no grudge and picked no fights, accentuating the positive with a shoeshine and a smile -- down with taxes, up with fiscal restraint, and in agreement on social issues. He played up his new standing as a target of the mainstream media. The crowd loved it.
Having lost as much as 85 pounds by some estimates, Christie is in near fighting shape, but he's not fighting much, except through his lawyers as he tries to fend off several investigations. His attitude seems to be that we are all one special prosecutor away from indictment, just ask Bill Clinton, and what doesn't kill him makes him strong. (And there may be more to come. The New York Times, citing people familiar with the matter, reported today that investigators are looking at possible securities law violations stemming from a $1.8 billion project in 2011 involving the Pulaski Skyway, the elevated roadway connecting Newark and Jersey City.)
For the moment, however, Christie is touring the country under cover of doing what’s good for his party and only incidentally good for himself. His travels are billed as a call to duty, not a test of the 2016 presidential waters. As he goes around reassuring the conservative wing of his party and selflessly campaigning for others, he’s trying a kinder, gentler personality on for size. By the time the real deal comes along, the transformation from Rocky Balboa to Mr. Rogers could be complete.
Christie is on the road on average one day a week, meeting with audiences large and small, close by or cross-country, in Dallas, Chicago, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Georgia and to Park City, Utah, for Mitt Romney's gathering. Host it and Christie will come. In the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire last week, Christie campaigned with the candidate for governor at a strip-mall restaurant called T-Bones.
In San Francisco in early June, Christie campaigned, sweet as can be, at a family-owned flower shop with Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari. He is the host of a small breakfast in Iowa for Governor Terry Brandstad next month. Go ahead, give him a call and invite him to your July Fourth block party. He just might come.
The notable thing about all the public appearances is just how debrashed the governor is. There's been no "Get the hell off the beach" or "It's none of your business where my kids go to school." He used to love wading into the crowd to get right up in the face of a heckler. No more. Heckled by humor at the White House Correspondent's Dinner in May (and sitting next to Sofia Vergara, the bombshell from "Modern Family"), Christie laughed good-naturedly at a stream of jokes at his expense: "Gridlock has gotten so bad in this town, you have to wonder: What'd we do to piss off Chris Christie so bad?" Comedian Joel McHale promised that the night would be both "amusing and over quickly, just like Chris Christie's presidential bid." At a post-dinner party, Christie shrugged it all off as being in good fun.
There's nothing more defanging than playing sidekick on late night TV. Watch him do the ridiculously embarrassing yet strangely beguiling Dad Dance routine on the "Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon," polo shirt tucked in and khakis up high. He was willing to shake his ample booty aware that Fallon would get the last laugh with a gratuitous bridge-closing step. In a matter of days, it's had close to 6 million views on YouTube.
It's understandable that he wants to get out of New Jersey, where no one would say he plays nice. Public sector workers and teacher have been laid off. Unemployment is among the highest in the country. He's got a tax plan that would most benefit the wealthiest residents. He’s called for balancing the budget by slashing a $2.25 billion pension payment for 2015 to $681 million, stiffing thousands of workers
He's not the first house devil and street angel, nor is it unusual for a politician to treat different constituencies differently. But if all this nice is meant as an image makeover before running for president, it could be a big mistake. Political graveyards are filled with failed rebranders, just remember Romney's opposite transformation from mild-mannered moderate Massachusetts businessman to right-wing self-deporting fire-breather.
The pre-heart-transplant Christie might be just right for 2016. Cruz is too wild, Paul is too libertarian and too elfin, Rubio is too bollixed by immigration. Of course, there's the question of the likely Democratic opposition.
Going up against the Clinton machine isn't for nice guys. Christie used to be up to the job, a tough pol who casually tossed his high school friend under the bus and cut off his closest political aides and allies when they became liabilities without so much as a goodbye.
Governor, as you were. If you’re going to jump in, wipe that smile off your face. Bring back your Jersey game and, as McHale joked at dinner, buckle up your extender belt. The ride's going to be rocky; that’s how Hillary Clinton rolls. Your old self is up to it.
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