Eight years ago, an obscure Illinois state senator with a foreign-sounding name gave a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention that drew an audience of 9.1 million, mostly on PBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. The major networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- passed up the speech, although some of their Chicago affiliates ran it live, much to the chagrin of Republican Alan Keyes who was then running against the relatively unknown Barack Obama for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.
The speech drew a “tepid” Nielsen rating -- less than half the audience for a typical summer prime time program, Variety noted -- but the laudatory coverage it engendered made Obama a national figure, catapulting him to a Senate victory that year and to the White House just four years later.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s keynote address to the Republican National Convention should be even bigger.
“Christie’s audience could very well be in the tens of millions. I imagine they’ll promote the hell out of this,” said Ben Dworkin, director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
“This is an opportunity for moving beyond New Jersey, an opportunity for Christie to project his image to a true national audience, not just to the Republican activists in the room, but to the average citizen around the country who is watching and wants to see what this guy is all about. Like Obama is 2004, he may be able to catapult himself to a whole new level when he delivers his speech.”
The major networks ended their gavel-to-gavel convention coverage two decades ago, leaving the field to the new cable news networks. But Christie’s presence at the podium could entice the national networks to cover the convention for an hour that night, and Christie’s status as a “local” celebrity could very well pull in live coverage by the New York City and Philadelphia network affiliates -- the largest and fourth-largest TV markets in the nation.
Christie did a virtual victory lap when his YouTube viewership topped 5 million earlier this year. Now he could draw 15 million or more viewers in a single night. And that doesn’t count the additional millions he will draw when he goes on Good Morning America, Meet the Press,Face the Nation, National Public Radio, and all the other programs that Obama hit before and after his convention speech.
“It makes sense for the Romney campaign to use Chris Christie like this because the governor is like the Beatles in terms of politics. He just looks different and sounds different than anyone else out there,” Dworkin noted. “And he’s really good at articulating a particular vision for what Republican leadership means, and he’s particularly adept at attacking those who would stand in the way of Republican progress.”
Christie stands to benefit much more from his prime time address than New Jersey’s last two keynotes: Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean’s 1988 speech was a valedictory given seven years into his governorship when no political experts expected him to run for national office, and U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley’s address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention was given by a New Jerseyan whose fame at the time equaled Christie’s, but whose political star had been tarnished by the narrowness of his victory over an unknown, underfunded Christine Todd Whitman two years before.
Christie is up for reelection next year, in 2013, and his selection as keynote speaker will dominate the New Jersey media for the next three weeks, just as speculation over whether he would run for president consumed the media last summer and into the fall, followed by months of stories over whether Romney would choose him for vice president.
“Heading into a gubernatorial year, this kind of national publicity only helps Chris Christie,” Dworkin said. “Every time the national press has covered him and fawned over him, his popularity numbers in New Jersey go up” -- and Christie is already consistently over 55 percent in the approval rating, the Rider University professor noted.
The audience for Christie’s speech will be particularly strong in New Jersey, especially if the major network affiliates in New York City and Philadelphia carry the speech. While Christie has given an Inaugural Address, two State of the State speeches, three Budget Addresses and two speeches to special sessions of the Legislature, relatively few New Jerseyans have actually seen Christie give a full speech because these speeches have been in the middle of the day and New Jersey public television viewership has been so low -- both before and after Christie sold the state-owned network to New York’s WNET.
And while the thrust of Christie’s speech will be to make an eloquent case for election of the Republican ticket of Romney and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, he will do so by telling voters both in New Jersey and nationally that his “New Jersey Comeback” is a blueprint for the nation, as Republican National Committee leaders and Christie himself made clear in a press release yesterday.
"As governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie has proven how bold Republican leadership gets results. He has fearlessly tackled his state's most difficult challenges, while looking out for hardworking taxpayers,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus declared.
"His leadership proves how the common-sense principles of reducing spending and cutting taxes works in New Jersey and will work for America," RNC Chief Executive Officer William Harris asserted.
As for Christie, he said, “We have an opportunity in Tampa to make clear that if we tell each other the hard truths, tackle the big problems, and make bold choices, we will see America's comeback" – a play on the “New Jersey comeback” that was Christie’s trademark phrase for the first six months of this year until the state’s unemployment rate started rising and revenue collections began coming in below his administration’s projections.
New Jersey Democrats are trying to tell a different story.
"Despite claims that he makes about being the 'comeback' governor, three years into his governorship, New Jersey ranked 47th out of 50 states in economic growth last year," U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said. "Christie ran on empty promises of economic improvement through right-wing policies, and has failed."
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who teamed with Christie to enact the controversial pension and health benefits reform legislation that will be one of the “bold choices” the governor will cite in his speech, made the same point.
“Given Governor Christie's history of New Jerseyans paying 20 percent more in property taxes under his watch, or having New Jersey's unemployment rate remain among the worst in the nation, or his continued policy of tax breaks for millionaires while raising taxes on the working poor, we can only assume that he is in lock step with the Romney/Ryan plan,” Sweeney said. "I look forward to seeing whatever spin the Governor tries to use to mask the Romney/Ryan plan to hurt our seniors, and his own failure to create jobs and help the middle class here in New Jersey."
But Lautenberg’s and Sweeney’s criticisms were relegated to Politickernj.com and other blogs, while Christie’s selection as keynote speaker was the news in the national electronic and print media, especially in New Jersey.
For New Jersey Democrats, it will be the same during the week of the Republican National Convention, only worse. “Democrats will be pitching anyone who will listen their version of what Christie’s leadership in New Jersey really means,” Dworkin noted. “But all the coverage is going to be about the speech, not about whatever holes Democrats are trying to poke in the speech.”