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Christie Would Become Instant No. 1 in Race, Face Challenges

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- on the brink of deciding whether to run for president as Republicans shower him with entreaties to do so -- could catapult to the front of an unsettled party field, strategists say, even as he would face a difficult road to nomination.

For Republicans yearning for a fresh face, Christie, 49 -- a government budget-slasher who has taken on labor unions and called some of his critics ``crazies'' -- would appear ideal.

He could eclipse former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in national polls, crowding his space as the candidate with experience governing a Democratic state, while playing to an average-guy image. Christie would also undermine Texas Governor Rick Perry’s status in the race as a sitting governor with a successful record. And his unconventional style and unorthodox positions could upstage former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has banked his campaign on a win in New Hampshire.

“If he runs, he will be a cannonball that completely reshapes the race,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, who advised former President George W. Bush. Christie “will be frontrunner overnight.”

Still, it’s a candidacy that could peak after the first day. Christie’s positions on issues such as illegal immigrants, civil unions for same-sex couples and gun-owners’ rights could offend important members of the Republican coalition -- including evangelicals and the gun lobby. Christie himself has said he doesn’t feel prepared to seek the presidency, and the financial and organizational challenges posed by a late entry could be formidable enough to stop him.

‘McCain-ish’ Figure

“It’s one thing being a prospective candidate, and it’s another being in the arena,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “For Christie, the first look, he’ll be very attractive, but then once things settle down, there’s a lot of Republicans who will not be comfortable with him.”

“There’s room for a truth-teller in the Republican field right now -- a McCain-ish kind of a figure,” Castellanos said. “But those candidates always have a tough time once they actually become candidates.”

Arizona Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, said yesterday that while he would wish Christie luck if he chose to run, he’d also counsel caution.

“The swimming pool looks a lot better until you jump right in,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “The water may not be quite as warm as you think.”

The Inner Desire

Christie has publicly indicated he has no desire to make the leap, repeatedly saying this year that he is not considering a run and even that he doesn’t believe he’s ready to be president. He told a supporter who begged him to run following a Sept. 27 speech at the Reagan library in California that the encouragement of others to run is “not a reason for me to do it. That reason has to reside inside me.”

Neil Newhouse, Romney’s campaign pollster, said that for Christie, “It’s not where he starts off, but where he is after a month. And I’ve got to tell you, nobody has a clue.”

“It’s his style and personality that people are attracted to,” Newhouse said, “and whether that has staying power over the course of a long presidential primary is hard to say.”

Christie didn’t respond to questions from the media on a possible presidential bid yesterday after a military awards ceremony in Trenton. The governor, who has said he would “have to commit suicide” to convince people he won’t run in 2012, is reconsidering and may decide within a few days, according to a Republican donor who asked not to be identified.

Time Running Out

He doesn’t have long to decide, with the first filing deadlines for presidential primaries looming in just weeks and the nominating calendar becoming increasingly front-loaded following Florida’s recent decision to schedule its balloting for Jan. 31, more than a month earlier than expected.

Christie would have to instantly devise a far-reaching campaign strategy in key states, erect organizations around the country and begin raising competitive campaign cash. Some operatives say it’s too late for him to make up for lost time.

“It’s like building a multimillion-dollar business in a couple of weeks and having it start delivering products to consumers without a hitch,” Castellanos said. “That is nearly impossible.”

Bonds Downgraded

Christie took office last year after defeating incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine amid voter dissatisfaction over the highest property taxes in the U.S. and a sluggish economy. He cut $10 billion in projected spending on schools, pensions and towns and required public workers to pay more for health care.

The state’s bond ratings have been downgraded. Fitch Ratings on Aug. 18 lowered the credit rating on New Jersey’s general-obligation bonds by one step to AA-, the fourth-highest grade, citing “mounting budgetary pressure” from pension and employee-benefit deficits. Moody’s Investors Service lowered it by one level, to Aa3, in April; Standard & Poor’s reduced its grade to AA- in February -- both fourth-highest.

Beyond the logistical challenges he would face in running for president, there are substantive ones. Christie holds some positions and made statements that depart from party orthodoxy.

In 2008, while serving as U.S. attorney, he said, “Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime,” a statement at odds with Republican primary voters’ opposition to illegal immigration and support for cracking down on foreigners who entered the U.S. without authorization. His office clarified his words with a statement that Christie “did not say, nor did he mean, that entering this country through any means other than the appropriate immigration channels is a legal act.”

‘Pathway to Citizenship’

More recently, Christie has said the U.S. government should secure the border and create a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants -- something many Republicans oppose and consider amnesty for lawbreakers.

Still, he said during his Sept. 27 appearance that he opposes a policy that Perry supported allowing certain children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities. He criticized the Texas governor for having said anyone who would oppose the measure doesn’t “have a heart.”

“Let me be very clear: From my perspective, that is not a heartless position; that is a commonsense position,” he said.

Christie also supports the federal ban on assault weapons. And asked his position this year on a law that would allow New Jersey residents to legally carry a concealed weapon, he wouldn’t state his view. He said it would never reach a vote in the state’s Democratic-led legislature, and, “I’m not going to bang my head against the wall on” such issues.

Social Issues

He opposes gay marriage yet supports New Jersey’s civil union law. He told CNN’s Piers Morgan that while he is Catholic and his church believes homosexuality is a sin, he doesn’t share the view. “I think if someone is born that way, it’s very difficult to say then that that’s a sin.”

The New Jersey governor in August defended his pick of a Muslim for a state judgeship, saying critics of Sohail Mohammed, who represented suspects after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were “ignorant” and “crazies.”

Some political columnists and bloggers accused Mohammed of having links to terrorism and said he’d be more likely to follow Shariah law, religious standards based on the Koran, instead of state or federal statutes.

“This Shariah law business is crap,” Christie said. “It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies.”

Republican strategists say these and other statements could haunt Christie in the Republican primaries.

“Once you get down in the mud with all the other farm animals it’s hard to tell the animals apart,” Castellanos said.

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