New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential bid Tuesday in a major coup for the former governor of Massachusetts, underscoring his status as front-runner for the GOP nomination.
Speaking to supporters in the early voting state of New Hampshire, Christie said Romney is “the guy we need to lead America.”
Romney even noted Christie’s popularity, saying in his introduction that Christie is a “hero in Republican circles” and a very popular governor whom many wanted to run for the nomination.
But Christie downplayed any talk of a Romney-Christie ticket.
“That’s going to be Gov. Romney’s choice. I’ve told him my only interest is helping him get elected and serving my state,” he said in a tele-townhall when asked about the vice presidential slot. “I have every expectation of serving my term through 2013.”
Romney said Christie would be on the VP shortlist.
“Of course, he’d be on anyone’s shortlist. He may take himself off the list and say, ‘No way. He’d have no interest.’ But the truth is that Governor Christie is one of the leading figures in the Republican Party,” Romney said in an interview with NBC News.
He added that he and are Christie are “great friends. We agree on a whole host of issues. Probably a few we don’t agree on. I don’t even know what those are. But we spent time together over the last year, getting to know each other better. I’ve asked for his counsel on policy matters. And so I think we’re pretty sympathetic on the issues that matter today.”
Romney and Christie have spoken several times in the past year and sat down for dinner in January, which was before Romney officially announced his presidential bid. Romney also secured the support of several Christie fundraisers — including GOP bundler Paul Singer and Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone — after the New Jersey governor’s announcement last week.
Christie’s seal of approval also highlights Romney’s courtship of the GOP establishment. He previously scored endorsements from former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) after they dropped out of the race, which his campaign hopes brings a sense of inevitability to Romney winning the GOP nomination.
Romney has catapulted back to the top of the polls after Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his main rival, stumbled in several debate performances. Businessman Herman Cain has also risen in the polls and is starting to edge his way into the top tier of candidates.
But Perry’s and Cain’s appeal lies more with conservatives, while Romney — and Christie — are favored by the more centrist camp within the Republican Party.
Earlier this month on “Fox News Sunday,” Cain said Christie is too liberal for conservative Republicans, pointing to the governor’s centrist stances on social issues.
Perry’s communications director, Ray Sullivan, downplayed the endorsement, telling Fox News Channel: “That’s the way it works in this business sometimes. The Northeast Republicans are sticking together in this case.”
Sullivan sought to move the conversation back onto the economy, suggesting that endorsements aren’t going to make or break the election. “That’s really what the voters want to hear about, how to get this economy turned around,” he said.
The Texas governor “has the utmost respect for Gov. Christie and looks forward to his help unseating President Obama next year,” Sullivan added in a statement released by Perry’s presidential campaign.
Christie brought his charismatic personality to the stage side by side with the typically buttoned-down Romney on Tuesday, willingly jumping into controversies that critics have attempted to attach to Romney’s campaign.
Christie also embarked on a media blitz, including the tele-townhall and an appearance on Fox News’s “Hannity.”
In a statement released by Romney’s campaign, Christie urged other Republicans to get behind Romney for the nomination.
At the New Hampshire event, Christie praised the blend of private-sector experience and government leadership Romney would bring to the presidency.
Romney is “not someone who decided to run for president off the back of an envelope, who wandered into it and said, ‘Let’s see how it goes,’ “Christie said, describing the former governor as someone who “thought and planned a long time” about what he would bring to the presidency. Christie added that the “big difference” between Romney and other candidates is that Romney decided, “I hope I can win, [but] I know I’m ready.”
Christie’s impassioned appeal earned spontaneous applause from the crowd, which was composed largely of Romney supporters.
The New Jersey governor batted aside questions about previous attacks on Romney’s Mormon beliefs and the healthcare bill that he implemented as governor of Massachusetts, a likely signal that he will use the full force of his personality as an outspoken Romney surrogate.
“Religious issues have nothing to do with someone’s ability to lead,” Christie said about Romney’s Mormonism, adding that those who seek to compare Massachusetts’s healthcare bill to Obama’s are being “completely intellectually dishonest.”
“I’m proud of him for standing up and doing what he believes is right,” he said.
Christie also grabbed some laughs for his candidate by suggesting Romney’s presidency would include “infinite” pie.
Christie compared the American economy to a pie, and said Obama has told Americans “that the pie of America is only so big, and if you want more, we have to take it to others. I know that Mitt Romney believes that the American pie can be grown bigger — that it can be an infinite size — because of the infinite nature of American ingenuity, and effort, and character,” he said.
— This story was originally posted at 1:23 p.m. was last updated at 8:28 p.m.