Chris Christie had at least three jobs to do last night in his keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.
The New Jersey governor needed to fire up the party’s faithful, without offending the rest of the nation -- something he hasn’t always accomplished in his home state.
He needed to convince his crowd that Mitt Romney is worthy of their devotion, dollars and labor over the next two months in what polls show will be a close presidential election.
He needed to sell voters outside the northeast U.S., where he’s best-known, that they should think about being fired up about him in four years, if the election doesn’t go Romney’s way.
The tough-talking governor sought to do all those tasks in a speech that blended biography, a call to face unpleasant fiscal realities and praise for the Republican presidential nominee who he said is up to the challenges the nation faces.
“Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on the path to growth and create good-paying private-sector jobs again in America,” Christie told party activists in Tampa, Florida. “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy.”
Christie missed an opportunity to make a “powerful case” that New Jersey is one of a number of states where the economy has improved with a Republican governor that has “road tested” plans to lower taxes and curb entitlement spending, said Clark S. Judge, a former speech writer and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
“I thought Christie didn’t hit that hard enough, that there’s a prospect of really turning things around fast,” Judge said. “There was an awful lot of New Jersey, and he is one of a number, and he really should have gone into the others, too.”
Robert Lehrman, a former speech writer for Vice President Al Gore, said Christie’s speech struck “the wrong tone and the wrong sentiment” and was jarring following Ann Romney’s speech attempting to cast her husband in a warmer light.
“If he wanted this to jump start his presidential campaign in 2016, I think he will have to recover,” Lehrman said, adding that Christie’s tone was tailored more to the delegates on the convention floor than to a national television audience.
“If you have 30 million people watching, and you’re talking to the people in the convention hall, that’s a big mistake,” he said.
In a speech designed to appeal to middle-class voters Romney needs to win, Christie, who considered entering the presidential race this year, told of the advice his Sicilian mother gave him about not always doing the popular thing.
“Tonight, we’re going to choose respect over love,” he said. “We are not afraid. We’re taking our country back.”
Christie presented Republicans as more willing than Democrats to address the deficit-ridden federal budget and spending matters. He also accused President Barack Obama as failing to show leadership.
“Real leaders don’t follow polls,” he said. “Real leaders change polls. That’s what we need to do now. We need to change polls through the power of our principles.”
Christie derided Democrats as beholden to special interests. “They believe in teacher unions,” he said. “We believe in teachers.”
Criticism from Democrats
Democrats today criticized the speech. Christie “talked about the need for truth-telling, we just didn’t hear any truth-telling,” Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters in Tampa at a news conference organized by the Obama campaign.
Considering Christie’s personality and the propensity for keynote speakers to advance their own political aspirations, the speech was “uncharacteristically humble,” said Ross Baker, a professor of American politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Baker said it’s common for a governor like Christie to frame his political vision for the American public and spend only a fraction of a keynote speech talking about the nominee, as Christie did.
“Keynoters are allowed a certain amount of forward projections, the argument being that you give them this position because they are rising stars in the party,” Baker said.
Barack Obama didn’t mention Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry by name until almost halfway through his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote speech that is credited with launching Obama’s national political career.
Baker said Christie’s statement that Republicans believe “in telling seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements” was meant to give “political cover” to Romney as his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, has proposed overhauling Medicare and converting it to a voucher system. Ryan will give his speech at the convention tonight.
Highlighting the importance of his speech -- and the desire of Romney’s campaign to stage-manage the Republican convention and vetting what he would say -- Christie wrote a full text in advance, something he almost never does.
The keynote speech is a coveted spot by politicians looking to expand their national reach, especially after Obama’s 2004 address.
There are no guarantees. Democrats Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards and Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Phil Gramm gave keynote addresses that were praised as successful without making it to the White House.
Elected in 2009 -- New Jersey’s first Republican governor since 1997 -- Christie became a national political figure when he raised public employee contributions to pensions and benefits, vetoed tax increases against millionaires and leveled insults at critics during “Jersey-style” confrontations.
He touted his record in the speech, saying, “When I came into office, I could continue on the same path that led to wealth and jobs and people leaving our state. Or I could do the job the people elected me to do, to do the big things.”
He took on the challenge, he said, and “three years later, we have three balanced budgets in a row with lower taxes. We did it.”
Christie, 49, endorsed Romney in October, on the eve of a Republican debate in New Hampshire. It came a week after his announcement that he wouldn’t enter the 2012 presidential race, dashing the hopes of some Republican leaders and donors who had sought a Romney alternative.
The governor’s name was sometimes mentioned in the media as a possible vice presidential running mate before Romney chose Ryan.
There were obvious reasons for Romney to be leery of putting Christie on his ticket.
New Jersey’s unemployment rate of 9.8 percent is well above the national average of 8.3 percent. At a personal level, his weight makes him less-than-telegenic and he’s known for blunt, off-the-cuff remarks that have led some to view him as a bully.
Christie took note of that latter attribute as he discussed his mother in the biographical part of his speech.
“She was tough as nails and did not suffer fools at all,” he said. “She spoke the truth -- bluntly, directly and without much varnish. I am her son.”