TRENTON, N.J. -- Coyness is not part of Chris Christie's repertoire, which does not stress subtlety, delicacy and intimation. New Jersey's governor is more Mickey Spillane than Jane Austen and his persona, which sometimes is that of a bulldog who got up on the wrong side of the bed, is so popular he seems to be cruising toward re-election this November and does not deny that he might look beyond that.
His budget for 2013 calls for spending less than did the state's 2008 budget. He has vetoed a tax on millionaires three times. He has scrapped, exuberantly, with public employee unions. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, 41,000 families are still homeless.
Nevertheless, 61 percent of his constituents think the state is on the right track, compared to 27 percent who thought so when he entered office three years ago. His 74 percent job approval includes 56 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents. This in a state where only 29 percent view the Republican Party favorably. And New Jersey is one of just three states (with New York and Maryland) in which Barack Obama improved upon his 2008 margin of victory (18 points, up from 16).
When the U.S. House of Representatives pondered longer than he thought proper in considering the bill for aiding Sandy's victims, Christie placed, in less than an hour, four unanswered late-evening calls to Speaker John Boehner, calls that were, Christie says mildly, "increasingly agitated." At last, Christie did his best imitation of Vesuvius, denouncing Boehner by name. The approval-disapproval numbers for his eruption were 79-15, including 70-22 among Republicans. People may not like government but they enjoy one operatic governor.
Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, accused Christie of a "tantrum." Christie's pugnacity emerges: "I want to see the next time a hurricane comes to Kentucky." Such "Sturm und Drang" earned Christie an appearance on Time magazine's cover -- a photo making him look very like New Jersey's Tony Soprano. Beneath the photo were two words -- "The Boss." Time told him the reference was to New Jersey's Bruce Springsteen. Christie isn't buying that, but neither does it bother him. "If my mother were alive," he says, "she'd be hot. She's the Sicilian."
He is potentially the un-Romney of Republican presidential politics, the candidate who connects viscerally, sometimes perhaps too much so, with voters. Although he campaigned hard for Mitt Romney in 2012 and was one of the first governors to endorse him, in 2011 Christie told Oprah that Romney doesn't connect with people. No one knows how the Republican nominating electorate of 2016 will feel about the idea of selecting a second consecutive Eastern governor from a blue state. "The presidency," Christie says, "is the most personal vote people cast," and he distils into two words the lesson of 2012: "Candidates matter."
He calls the GOP's decision, made in the run-up to 2012, to lengthen the nominating process "the stupidest thing the Republican Party ever did." When the process is too protracted, "You wind up with a good candidate who's damaged." Although he understands the lacerating rigor of a nomination campaign, "I may not do it but it won't be for that reason."
He heartily agrees with the axiom that the most "likable" candidate usually wins presidential elections, and he understands that combativeness that might serve a governor might be inappropriate for a president, who people want cloaked in a particular dignity, and who is in everyone's living room every night. Christie says, "The image of me nationally is a little skewed." What he calls his "yelling and screaming" is very limited and always tactical. He thinks even voters choosing a president "want someone who has that club in his golf bag."
Cory Booker, Newark's Democratic mayor, supposedly has a bright future but it will not be as New Jersey's governor any time soon. He has challenged the re-nomination of an incumbent Democratic senator, 89-year-old Frank Lautenberg, rather than tangle with Christie, who already has $2.14 million in his campaign treasury and who on Feb. 13 will be given a Silicon Valley fundraiser at the home of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.
By 2015, the Republican nominating electorate will have forgotten Christie's effusive praise of Obama's post-Sandy solicitousness toward New Jersey. And Christie will be the rambunctious fellow who before Sandy described Obama as "a man walking around in a dark room looking for the light switch of leadership." Remember the name of Mickey Spillane's famous protagonist: Mike Hammer.