Allyne Caan / March 20, 2015

Chris Christie Has Some Marketing to Do

Can the New Jersey governor make his case for president?

When Chris Christie won election as governor of New Jersey in 2009, his swift upward trajectory to national leadership seemed inevitable. After all, here was a Republican who had won in a solidly blue state, had brought an unprecedented – and many considered refreshing – dose of bluntness to the governor’s mansion, and was ready to take on New Jersey’s powerful teachers unions. Here was leadership that Republicans not only in the Garden State but nationwide could rally behind.

How much has changed.

With the 2016 presidential field already taking shape, Christie, once a steady name among political prognosticators, seems to be losing supporters in less time than it takes to back up traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

His national endearment among many conservatives seemed solidified early on in his governorship, when he proposed that public workers in the state pay more toward their benefits as part of a plan to save New Jersey’s perpetually underfunded pension system – a bold move for Jersey’s political climate. That same year, he signed a bill capping annual property tax increases at 2% – a huge feat in the state that consistently ranks among the worst in the nation for property tax burdens. Here was a fiscal conservative succeeding in a blue state.

Despite the fanfare, however, five years after taking office, Christie has yet to deliver many concrete changes in the Garden State. New Jersey ranks last in the Tax Foundation’s business tax climate index, causing businesses to set up shop elsewhere; the state’s unemployment has been the worst among its neighboring states; the pension system remains in dire straits; and, according to New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press, property taxes increased at their fastest rate in 2014 notwithstanding the 2% cap.

Additionally, while national accolades flowed, back home Christie began to develop a reputation as a bully whose heated arguments with voters at town hall meetings soon became legendary. On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, his sudden “bromance” with Barack Obama was an unforgivable sin to many conservatives. And in 2013, he put a dent in his support among the state’s conservatives for backing out of defending traditional marriage, removing the final barrier against same-sex marriage in the state.

Then there was Bridgegate, in which members of Christie’s staff allegedly ordered lane closures on the heavily traveled George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee to upper Manhattan, in political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. Although direct ties to Christie never emerged, many familiar with how Christie runs his shop find it hard to believe the governor had no knowledge. Indeed, the Christie inner circle has become legendary not only for its impenetrability but also for its strikingly shrinking size – a fact that doesn’t bode well for a potential presidential run.

Last month, for example, PolitickerNJ.com, the state’s go-to political news site, reported that 90% of the governor’s top staffers have left (or been fired), including his chief of staff and spokesman. Additionally, one of his longtime friends and key allies in the New Jersey state senate, Joe Kyrillos, is reportedly flirting with the idea of supporting Jeb Bush for the White House.

Yet, despite it all, Christie is plowing ahead, assembling staffers and launching a PAC – Leadership Matters for America – in preparation for a 2016 run. Longtime Christie advisor Mike DuHaime claims that if Christie decides to run he will win. But not everyone is convinced. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey released earlier this month, 57% of Republican primary voters said they couldn’t see themselves voting for Christie; only 32% could.

While in the political world a lifetime remains between now and the primary elections, it may take that long for Christie to convince primary voters his leadership style is not only what America needs, but also one it can live with.

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