Another Boomlet for an Unknown Republican

by Stuart Rothenberg October 4, 2011 · 10:40 AM EDT

Like a heroin addict who needs his next needle, the national media have once again whipped themselves up into a frenzy about a noncandidate. This time, it’s Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey.

Christie, we are being told, is listening to pleas to enter the presidential race from average voters, uncommitted GOP fundraisers and Republican movers and shakers — all of whom have doubts about Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the two current frontrunners for their party’s nomination.

Some Republicans certainly want Christie to reverse his initial decision to sit out the 2012 race and instead enter the Republican contest, but many of them know little about the Garden State’s governor.

Since they don’t know much about him other than that he “tells it as it is,” they are projecting the qualities they want in a president — from personality and style to issue positions — on Christie. Not surprisingly, they like what they see — or what they now imagine they see.

Successful politicians often benefit from projection, of course, as then-Sen. Barack Obama did in 2008. While he had a thin record, Obama represented change and hope for a new America. Liberals could see in him what they wanted, as could moderates and those who hoped the country could move past its political polarization.

But the New Jersey Republican will have a hard time being all things to all people if he decides to enter the presidential contest. He’ll be forced again and again to articulate positions and paint himself into a corner on issues, inevitably turning off some Republicans who had created an image of the man that never fit with the reality.

I have no idea whether Christie, who repeatedly has said that he will not run, will enter the GOP race shortly. But I’m pretty certain that candidate Christie would be in for a much rougher time from the media and his fellow Republicans than non-candidate Christie has had.

As the New York Times’ Michael Shear noted, the governor is “a jumble of political contradictions. He’s a conservative with some liberal views, a New Jersey politician who can bully but also frequently talks about compromise, and an obviously reluctant candidate who clearly hears the call of the national stage.”

Those contradictions will give Christie’s critics — and, yes, there will be plenty of critics if he enters the race — uncountable opportunities to exploit those contradictions, forcing the governor on the defensive, where he might stumble, giving his opponents even more opportunities to attack him.

On gun control, immigration and global warming, presidential candidate Chris Christie would have dramatically more trouble in the Republican presidential race than he has had in the Garden State. His entire personal and professional record would come under much more intense scrutiny than it has so far.

Could Christie navigate the difficult waters of a Republican presidential race? Possibly. I don’t know. He has quickly built a terrific personal brand, and he is a skilled politician.

But the whole tone of the media coverage of Christie would change if and when he enters the race. The media’s current cheerleading would likely give way quickly to focus on the challenges facing him and on those elements of the party that find his record and statements objectionable.

Christie surely would have to address his repeated explanation that he wasn’t interested in running for the presidency at this time because he “isn’t ready.” If the governor wasn’t ready last week or last month, how could he possibly be ready now?

And the New Jersey Republican’s thin political résumé — Morris County freeholder and less than two years as governor — might remind too many people of Obama’s.

Christie’s persona is both an advantage and a question mark in a White House bid.

Both Romney and Perry look and sound like candidates from central casting, and that bothers some. Christie is very different. As Shear wrote, “In an era when people say they are tired of slick, pre-programmed politicians who faithfully repeat a focus-group-tested message, the New Jersey governor is anything but.”

Still, it’s unclear whether Christie’s New Jersey style will wear well nationally. Some veteran Garden State Republicans have told me that they doubt that the governor’s in-your-face style will sell over time in other parts of the country.

Christie might well be a strong opponent for Obama, if he could get the nomination. But it is far from clear that he could, and the candidacy of a second Northeast governor could end up benefiting the Texan Perry during the nominating process.