Editorial: One unasked question for Christie

Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie entertained reporters for so long at his press conference last week that it’s hard to imagine there were questions left unasked. And yet, what about the most important question of all: What in the world do New Hampshire Republicans make of this spectacle?

Christie’s press conference was held to tamp down a growing scandal that could only have happened in New Jersey: Aides to the governor conspired to create a world-class traffic jam on the busiest bridge in the nation, apparently as retribution toward a local mayor who had declined to endorse Christie in his reelection bid. It’s a story about Fort Lee, N.J., but one that has real relevance here, given Christie’s aspirations to run for president.

And so, the pertinent question: How will this play with New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary voters?

There’s a case to be made – at least there was before the bridge fiasco – that Christie might do well here, despite the notion that Republican primaries will always be dominated by right-wing activists. A perceived moderate like Christie might convince New Hampshire independents to pick up Republican ballots in big numbers, as they did for John McCain in his fight with George W. Bush in 2000, even with a high-stakes Democratic fight on the agenda that year. The comparison to McCain isn’t terribly far-fetched: Christie’s blunt talk, outsized personality and willingness to sometimes work with Democrats have given him a reputation for what McCain used to call “straight talk.”

Of course, whether that’s what Christie was actually giving us last week remains to be seen.

If more digging by the New Jersey and national press corps determine that Christie was not quite as ignorant as he says, so much for that reputation. If Christie’s insistence that he knew nothing turns out to be true, that creates a host of other questions about his readiness for the White House: Could he really have had so little curiosity about the scandal throughout the fall? Did he create a culture where such vengeful trickery was encouraged? Why would he surround himself with such vindictive operators? How does that square with his Nixonian declaration: “I am not a bully”?

Last week brought two early glimpses of the local reaction: First, Jennifer Horn, the state Republican Party chief, gave Christie good grades for his performance. “Governor Christie demonstrated leadership by taking responsibility, holding the staffer who ordered the lane closures accountable, and openly and honestly answering every question about this issue,” Horn said.

Second, early reports from the Public Policy Polling firm, which spent the end of last week phoning New Hampshire voters to talk about presidential politics, indicated state GOP voters were reacting with a collective shrug. On the first night of phoning, the pollster said, Christie was leading the Republican field in New Hampshire – and doing better than he was in September. In fact, about 70 percent of New Hampshire Republicans told pollsters their opinion of Christie at the end of last week was no different than at start of week; 15 percent said it was more positive, and 15 percent said it was more negative.

The story’s not over, and Christie certainly has enough to keep him busy at home. But as soon as he can slip away, we’d encourage a quick trip north. A convincing performance in New Hampshire might go a long way.