DES MOINES, Iowa — The New Jersey Democrats, independents and minority voters who broke from their traditional political camps to help give Gov. Christie a 22-point reelection victory just 14 months ago would have found themselves flabbergasted by the speakers at the Iowa Freedom Summit this weekend.
There were calls to abolish federal agencies, from the Internal Revenue Service to the Environmental Protection Agency. The references to God were narrow – “God” was Jesus Christ, only – and He was called upon to give guidance in picking the next president of the United States. John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, rattled off a long list of countries that America should consider going to war with, while former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin gave a rambling speech that her biographer said was the strangest he had ever heard her deliver. In the hallway, Donald Trump tried to convince reporters that he was “a serious person” considering a presidential run.
The summit was hosted by Iowa Congressman Steve King, one of the most controversial Republicans in Washington for his views on illegal immigrants, and by Citizens United, the conservative group that won an eponymous Supreme Court decision which changed modern politics by lifting restrictions on corporate political contributions.
Christie, who announced at 12:01 am today a new Political Action Committee that will fund his travel around the country as he prepares for a presidential campaign, has carved out a decidedly moderate niche in the Republican party. He preaches the politics of electability and big tent Republicanism. So what in the world was he doing at the Freedom Summit?
Well Iowa holds the first presidential caucus in the nation, just 53 weeks from now. The summit – which was notably not attended by Christie’s chief potential Republican presidential rivals — Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush – offered Christie an opportunity to make a case to the activist base of the Iowa Republican party that is tremendously influential in the caucuses. In fact the trip to Iowa was the first that his new PAC, Leadership Matters For America, funded.
But he had ground to make up in Iowa. He is doing horribly in the polls here. Several attendees had the vague sense that they didn’t trust him any more, although they couldn’t necessarily point to what had changed.
“I fell in love with Chris Christie because he spoke the truth, because he really was a good American who wanted to take this country back from the illegals and terrorists and nincompoots and sheeple, if you will,” said Sabrina Graves of Bluegrass, Iowa. “And then I just saw him politicking, crony style….One of the good ole boys.”
In more than a dozen interviews here, what surfaced was a vague sense that that he’s not conservative enough. They think he’s weak on Second Amendment issues, even though in reality he vetoed gun control measures, and they think he’s weak on abortion, even though in reality he vetoed funding for Planned Parenthood every year of his term.
And while no one seemed concerned about the Bridgegate scandal – not a single person brought it up when I asked them about Christie — several raised his so-called hug with President Obama after Sandy. That moment continues to cost him support among the activist base.
From the stage, former Virgina Gov. Jim Gilmore didn’t say “Christie.” But he didn’t have to. “Do you want a nominee who wrapped his arms around president Obama?”
“No!” the crowd responded.
But give Christie credit: The governor did not excessively pander to win back these voters. Although he repeatedly noted that he is pro-life and he spoke in terms that attendees described afterward as “religious,” the language wasn’t much different from his other speeches of late. There were no new conservative positions offered up to the crowd. And most significantly he said that although they may not always agree with him, they should consider supporting someone like him in a national campaign – in other words, he was the best messenger for making a conservative clarion call to the country.
“The notion that our party must abandon our belief in the sanctity of life to be competitive in blue states is simply not true, and I am living proof of that fact,” he said.
In other words: I’m electable.
“You don’t do it by pandering. You don’t do it by telling people what they want to hear. You do it by telling people the truth,” he said.
The governor then told the almost entirely white crowd that he won most Hispanic and a quarter of black voters in his reelection in 2013. And he said the way to win the presidency is by building “a coalition that covers all parts of the country, all ethnicities.” The inference here was that he was the man to lead such a coalition.
Christie then pivoted into new territory. He said the “coalition” should be comprised of the “underserved working class in this country.”
“See the rich are doing fine. That’s great. We don’t demonize the wealthy…but nor should we cater to the wealthy at the expense of our middle-income earners,” he said.
The governor had vetoed tax increases on millionaires and minimum wage increases for the working poor, but here he was talking about the problem of wage stagnation. It was a populist message that was reflective of the political environment. Hillary Clinton, President Obama and even Romney have been talking about income inequality recently, indicating that it will likely become central to the 2016 presidential campaign.
He interspersed this new working class message with a term he’s been road-testing a lot lately – American “anxiety.” He said his travels around the country have revealed this as a growing problem.
So that was the messaging. Next Christie had to sell the crowd on tone. Most seemed comfortable with the Christie attitude. “I love the fact that he ruffles everybody’s feathers,” Bruceanne Phillips said. “He tells people, ‘Sit down, shut up, this is my show.’”
Others didn’t think Christie’s “abrasiveness” or “hotheaded” style worked in the country between New York and Los Angeles. So Christie sought to set aside those concerns. When Christie’s speech was almost immediately interrupted by an immigration protester, Christie just laughed. And then used the opportunity to refute the “conventional wisdom” that his personality doesn’t play in the rest of the country.
“If I was too blunt, too direct, too loud and too New Jersey for Iowa, then why do you people keep inviting me back?” he asked. He was taking the edge off a bit while using a phrase – “you people” – that was quintessentially Christie.
Christie then told a touching story that he has told perhaps more than any other in New Jersey — about what his mother told him on her death bed. The story drew a warm response – there was lots of laughter at the appropriate times, and at least one woman dabbed away tears.
He had arrived to polite clapping, but when he left some stood to applaud.
Christie’s plan isn’t to win the Iowa presidential caucuses. The plan is to not lose, to pick off enough hard-right conservatives who are wooed by his charms or electability so he can go into the next presidential states without limping. Social conservative Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012 but couldn’t pick up another state; John McCain came in fourth in Iowa in 2008 and won the nomination.
“He wasn’t my favorite coming in,” said Don Naringon, a retired farmer, after listening to Christie’s speech. “His conservative talk and his religious, personal [talk] about his mother touched me. He’s got a soft side.”