A series of unorthodox decisions by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie points to a simple political calculation for a potential presidential campaign: long-term gain beats short-term pain.
Christie last week refused to appoint a fellow Republican to complete the full 17 months of the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg's term. Instead the governor scheduled a special election for October and named the state's attorney general, Republican Jeff Chiesa, to serve in the interim.
A week earlier, he made his second post-Superstorm Sandy appearance with President Barack Obama along the Jersey shore. Last summer, Christie's keynote address at the Republican National Convention focused heavily on his own record instead of the party's nominee, Mitt Romney.
In each case, the Republican reaction has ranged from sharp criticism in public to muted carping in private, with insiders suggesting that Christie is proving himself to be a shrewd politician who puts his own political career first over his party's needs.
Republican Dick Armey, a former U.S. House majority leader from Texas, said Christie's Senate race decision was "debilitating stupidity."
The complaints are remarkably reminiscent of Democrats' concerns with Obama over the years.
Not that Christie seems to care about the gripes.
"There's no political purpose. The political purpose is to give the people a voice," he said last week, shrugging off GOP criticism from Capitol Hill over the Senate election schedule.
All this came just a few months after Christie disclosed that he had undergone secret weight-loss surgery, which addressing both a political and health vulnerability, just days after lashing out against critics of his weight.
Christie has shown he's willing to take some heat from fellow Republicans now for actions that could benefit him in the future, perhaps for a 2016 presidential campaign. Outside of Obama, few other political leaders can command attention like Christie, and he has used it forge a bipartisan, tell-it-like-it-is reputation that has helped him generate high approval ratings during his first term and bolster his re-election chances.
Christie's approach, however, carries some risk.
He could alienate the very Republicans he would need to win a presidential primary campaign, when the electorate is filled with conservative stalwarts who don't look kindly on working across the aisle. These high-profile moments create the impression among Republican donors and insiders that Christie's own political self-interest trumps the needs of the party.
"He's playing the long game," said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist. He suggested that Christie's crossover appeal could make him a formidable figure but Republicans might not be as forgiving if the governor's re-election campaign fails to produce a sweeping victory.
"He has to hope that his numbers are so high in the fall that it offsets anger from national Republicans," Sheinkopf said. "It doesn't injure him if he wins very big and wins big with Democrats. If not, then his brand is tarnished."
Christie's defenders say he was a loyal soldier to Romney during the campaign and simply put his state first after Sandy struck. They say that a quick Senate special election was in the state's best interests and that he's focused on his re-election race, not 2016.
Even so, Christie seems to be betting that a landslide victory against state Sen. Barbara Buono, a relatively unknown opponent in Democratic-tilting New Jersey, will help him make the case that if Christie does run for the White House, he has the ability to reach a diverse set of voters.
A big victory in New Jersey could help him argue that he could reach women, Latinos and black voters, who have flocked to Obama, and untangle Washington's gridlock after Obama's two terms.
"What we want to do is to create a whole new coalition, not just of Republicans but of independents and of right-thinking Democrats," Christie said Tuesday during a GOP primary night party in Bridgewater. "Not just of people in the suburbs but of people in the cities. Not just of people of wealth but of people who aspire to wealth. We can do it together and we will do it together."
In the week ahead, Christie is scheduled to hold events that underscore his ability to reach voters outside the typical Republican electorate, unlike Romney, who struggled to win over non-white voters.
Friday will offer a telling contrast.
While a group of potential GOP presidential contenders court evangelicals at Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, Christie will attend the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting in Chicago with former President Bill Clinton, creating images that only can enhance his standing with moderate voters and Democrats back home.
That appearance is all but certain to further irk Republicans.
Many were annoyed by Christie's decision to call for a special election in October to fill Lautenberg's Senate seat, even though the governor goes before voters three weeks later. The move helped Christie avoid being on the same ballot as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the likely Democratic Senate nominee who could compel his party to turn out and weaken Christie's vote totals, and it could help Republicans campaigning for seats in the Legislature.
Republicans had hoped to have another vote in the Senate until November 2014 but Christie's decision left Republicans scrambling to find a candidate in a compressed time period. Chiesa will be a placeholder until October.
When asked about the special election's $24 million cost, Christie said he didn't know the cost "and I quite frankly, don't care."
Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, begged off pointed criticism, saying he wouldn't "question the path that he has chosen." But some conservatives teed off more directly on Christie, with Rush Limbaugh suggesting the governor might seek the Democratic nomination for president. "You talk about slap in the face," Limbaugh said.
Christie defended his decision, saying holding the election at a later date would have generated lawsuits from Democrats and voters should have a "voice and choice" on their next senator. "I will not permit the insiders and a few party elites to determine who the nominee of the Republican party and the Democratic party will be," he said.
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