Independence, OH – Three potential presidential rivals stood on a makeshift stage in a cavernous warehouse: There was Gov. Chris Christie, of course, continuing his rapid return to the top tier of possible Republican candidates, along with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — lesser known but veteran politicians who are increasingly being discussed as possible Republican nominees.
Monday’s rally was for Kasich’s re-election — an attempt to fire up the base five weeks before the mid-terms. But when the event ended and the exit music came on, only Kasich and Portman walked off the stage. Christie lingered, kneeling to take selfies with fans, exchange loud pleasantries over the din and reach down both of his arms to shake hands.
It’s like this wherever Christie goes these days. Christie basks in the spotlight — showing evident relish for the flesh-pressing grind of day-to-day campaigning. And it’s familiar to those who watched the governor in 2012, when he crisscrossed the country in support of Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency.
And yet the Christie now appearing on a gubernatorial campaign trail near you is subtly different from the Christie of 2012.
So far, he hasn’t had any run-ins with reporters, as he and he hasn’t chased anybody down a Jersey Shore boardwalk. The idea that Christie couldn’t control himself was one reason that reportedly led Romney to look elsewhere for a running mate.
The 2014 version of Christie is in total control. While campaigning with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday an assertive reporter asked Christie if it was “ironic” that he was criticizing Walker’s opponent for “integrity” when his own integrity has been questioned over the Bridgegate scandal.
Christie calmly answered. “As you know there’s been nothing that has indicated me or anyone else had anything to do with what happened there,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s ironic at all.”
And while Christie was famously criticized for delivering a keynote speech at the 2012 Republican convention that focused too much on his own accomplishments and life story, the Christie who showed up at the Kasich rally didn’t talk about himself at all in his six-minute remarks. “Here’s what makes John different: John governs not only with his head, but John governs with his heart,” Christie said to applause.
Christie even looks better than he did in 2012. His weight was another concern that the Romney camp had about making him the running mate, but the governor has since shed a noticeable number of pounds since lap-band surgery last year. He regularly fields compliments about how good he looks.
At a news conference in Trenton last week, Christie said the travel and campaigning he has been doing in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association has helped him get a sense of what running for president is like.
“It gets you used to what it would be like for you travel around the country – and what effects it has on you physically, what effects it has on you mentally, and what effect it has on your family,” Christie said. “So all if it is informative.”
He will not make an announcement about whether he is running until the beginning of next year. And while Christie has pledged to focus only on gubernatorial races right now — he’ll be out of state almost every day for the next five weeks — his choices of states to visit hint at his future plans. He has campaigned in Ohio, New Hampshire and Iowa — none of which have close gubernatorial races. What those states do have in common is that they are critical battlegrounds for the 2016 presidential election.
Meanwhile, two states with close gubernatorial elections — but are inconsequential in the presidential race — have largely been ignored by Christie. He hasn’t been to Massachusetts in seven months, and he has yet to campaign for the embattled Republican incumbent in Georgia.
Last month Christie visited South Carolina, an important early presidential primary state, to ostensibly campaign for Gov. Nikki Haley, who is facing an easy road to reelection. After a joint appearance at a burrito joint the two left together to get into waiting SUVs, which were to whisk them off to a fundraiser. But on the way out Christie stopped to look at a hat shop next door. The proprietor invited him, so he tried on a hat and he took some pictures. And then, the owner of an eyeglass shop asked him to come over to her shop to try on some sunglasses.
“I’m gonna go back and see those sunglasses, what the heck,” he said to his aides. “I got a little time, don’t I?”
An aide responded that Haley was waiting in the car. But Christie was already out the door, in the next shop, taking more selfies, and making new friends. When he finally he left, he promised to come back next year.