As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie deliberates whether to plunge into the presidential race, he is rapidly running out of time to mount an effective campaign, say Republican strategists and fundraisers.
“It’s a big job,” said John Catsimatidis, the billionaire supermarket tycoon who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Christie. “And he’s only concentrated on New Jersey, so he doesn’t have the national contacts.”
Christie has scheduled a 1 p.m. news conference in Trenton.
To undertake a national campaign, Christie and his team would need to hire scores of staff, recruit teams of volunteers in crucial early voting states and embark upon a fast-paced travel schedule of fundraisers and campaign events.
That requires raising a lot of money quickly. Yesterday, the South Carolina Republican Party announced it would hold its primary on Jan. 21, a shift that probably will bump the Iowa caucuses to just after New Year’s Day. The accelerated primary calendar leaves Christie with less than 90 days before the first round of voting.
“You need at least $50 million to mount a campaign between now and Jan. 31,” said Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican Party committeeman who was a top adviser to Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2008 president bid. “That means raising half a million a day -- starting last Friday.”
There are also significant organization challenges: Republican strategists in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina say they have seen no signs that Christie is laying the foundation for a run.
“It’s pretty radio silent around here,” said Tim Albrecht, an aide to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who worked on Republican Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in the state. “To my knowledge he has not reached out to a single person in New Hampshire,” said Republican strategist Mike Dennehy, who isn’t affiliated with any campaign.
And there is the challenge of framing his record in a positive way before his adversaries do otherwise. Christie’s positions on issues such as illegal immigration, civil unions for same-sex couples and gun-owners’ rights could alienate key portions of the Republican base.
“People know about him, but they don’t know him and there is a huge difference,” said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist.
Already, Democrats have begun questioning whether he has the policy record to be a credible candidate.
“Christie, if he enters the race, will be an embarrassment,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, in an interview on Bloomberg Television yesterday. “I simply think his record won’t stand up to national scrutiny.”
Christie aides are confident they could get a campaign up and running quickly. A Republican close to the Christie camp, who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak for him publicly, said logistics about staff and fundraising are driving Christie’s deliberations. The governor hasn’t made up his mind about whether he wants to run, he said.
At the swearing-in of a New Jersey Superior Court judge yesterday, Christie avoided questions about his plans. He arrived at the ceremony in Paterson with a group of black SUVs and entered through a back door as crowds of local and national media swarmed in front of the courthouse.
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, and Standard & Poor’s reduced its grade to AA- in February -- both fourth-highest.
Still, party fundraisers across the country, including Kenneth Langone, co-founder of Home Depot Inc.; hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and industrialist David Koch, have urged Christie to get into the presidential race.
Christie has tapped out-of-state support to raise funds for the New Jersey Republican Party. Individuals, corporations and political action committees outside New Jersey gave at least $529,000 to the Republican State Committee in the first half of 2011 out of $1.7 million raised, according to campaign finance records.
That support may not be enough to raise the level of money needed to mount a presidential campaign, say donors. Federal campaign finance rules limit donors to giving $2,500 at a time.
“It takes not just having a few wealthy Wall Streeters backing you,” said Peter Leidel, a Romney donor and co-founder of Yorktown Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. “You need to have an organization in place to raise millions because at $2,500 a crack it takes a lot of people.”
Beyond the organizational challenges he would face in running for president, there are policy positions that Christie has embraced in the past that could become instant fodder for his opponents.
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 some Republican primary voters’ opposition to illegal immigration and support for punishing 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.”
Christie also supports the federal ban on assault weapons. In addition, when 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 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,” Christie said.
In August, he 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 would 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.”
Christie will have to explain those positions under a degree of national scrutiny that is far more intense than anything he experienced on the state or local level.
“The swimming pool looks a lot better until you jump right in,” McCain said two days ago on CBS’s “Face The Nation.” “The water may not be quite as warm as you think.”