Charleston, SC — Gov. Chris Christie walked into jam-packed burrito joint called Moe’s alongside South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley Tuesday afternoon, but he was soon separated from his host as GOP activists mobbed him, asked him for selfies and told him he reminded them of Ronald Reagan.
Christie spent the day campaigning with and fundraising for Haley, who is up for re-election, and he’ll do the same today for Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates in Maryland and New Hampshire. But wherever Christie goes, his shining Republican star outshines whatever Republican he’s with as he draws the most interest from local Republicans and reporters.
And so when Christie and Haley took some questions in the corner of the restaurant, he was immediately asked if he’s too moderate to play in the South. “Bottom line is if I decide to run for president then I’ll be judged up and down on what my record is,” he said. “So I don’t worry about any of that stuff.”
But he will soon worry about all that stuff, if he isn’t already. South Carolina has the South’s first presidential primary in 2016, and so if Christie runs — he’ll make an announcement one way or another at the beginning of next year. Until Newt Gingrich broke the streak in 2012, for three decades the winner of the South Carolina primary went on to secure the Republican presidential nomination.
Christie evidently enjoys the attention and plays coy with the crowds. Haley and Christie left Moe’s in a rainstorm, and Haley got right into a waiting SUV to shuttle them off to a fundraiser. But the owner of a hat shop stepped outside to invite Christie in. After trying on a hat Christie popped into an eyeglass store, and he told the ophthalmologist that he’d come back to see him next year.
Why in the world would you be back next year, governor?
“I’ll come by any time to see Governor Haley, second-term Governor Haley,” he replied as he walked out to the waiting SUV. “Maybe play a little golf, who knows?”
If and when Christie does come back (and if he’s here to campaign for president), interviews with a range of Republican leaders in the Charleston area over the last few days reveal that the issues they are most concerned with begin with national security and the threat of Muslim extremism in the homeland. Several said they believe that Muslims have already infiltrated the country, and the next president needs to both be more aggressive in the Middle East and secure borders at home.
“That’s a big issue with us — they’re all over the country right now, they’re infiltrating,” said Edwin S. Taylor, 66, an adviser to the Citadel Republican Society, a student group. Taylor wants Muslims forbidden from entering the country, and he wants the war taken to the enemy.
“If we don’t stop it over there they’re going to be doing it on our doorstop,” Taylor said. “So these are the things my friends and I talk about that we worry about it, and whether Christie thinks he can solve those issues, that’s what we want to know.”
They are also fearful about the national debt, which they believe is being driven largely by people loafing on welfare. And even though this is South Carolina, and they said they want a pro-life Christian president, social issues are not a top priority among Charleston Republicans. Instead, several said they want someone who is electable and will break the impasse in Washington by reaching across the aisle.
Christie’s biggest liability continues to be the bro-hug with President Obama after Sandy in the days leading up to the 2012 election. Republicans are still bitter about this, and blame Mitt Romney’s loss in part on the optics of this hug.
One thing they couldn’t care less about? Bridgegate.
“There are probably more important issues in the state of New Jersey, and there are certainly more important issues in our country, than whether the lanes of a bridge are closed,” said Beth LeFevre Hendrix, president of the Charleston County Republican Women. “Down here, we have drawbridges, so bridge closures? It happens.”
Said 75-year-old Sam Kirton: “That ain’t nothing but garbage that other man’s trying to put on him.” Kirton likes Christie for being a moderate and getting elected twice in blue New Jersey, and he wants Christie to run for president because he’s “plain-spoken” and “acts like a leader.”
“Next president of the United States — that’s you!” Kirton said to Christie.
“Thank you,” Christie said.