Christie needs strong showing at CPAC

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Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) heads into the lion’s den at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, still wounded from the ongoing scandal surrounding the George Washington Bridge lane closures.

The Republican has never been a darling of the right, and was even pointedly left off the invite to last year’s gathering after embracing President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy days before the 2012 election. 

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This year was supposed to be the presidential hopeful’s time to mend those fences and tout his mammoth reelection win. Instead his stock has sunk across the political spectrum since the bridge scandal ensnared his administration. The ripple effect has been a drop in the polls that has caused some GOP donors to look for presidential alternatives. Now, the stakes couldn’t be higher for his speech. 

The White House hopeful isn’t dead on arrival yet. Most of the party’s kingmakers haven’t entirely written him off, waiting to see how he weathers the storm. His record-breaking fundraising for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and a stern budget address in which he called for pension reform and hinted at entitlement reform have held their attention and impressed — for now. 

But a strong showing at CPAC would give him another feather in his cap as he works to re-establish himself as a player in the 2016 presidential field.

The good news for Christie is, while the stakes are high, expectations might be so low, he might be incapable of falling short.

“I don’t think anybody’s expecting him to go in there and hit a grand slam. He’ll be fine if he hits a solid single,” said Craig Shirley, a GOP consultant who works frequently with conservative clients.

Though Christie received a warm reception at the conference in 2012, he’s since become somewhat estranged from the base of the party because of the compromises he signed off on as governor of a blue state. 

Last year, he decided to abandon his administration’s legal fight against gay marriage in the state. He also signed a measure that gives the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition, and he’s supported some gun control measures — all positions that have drawn conservative criticism.

“Even before the BridgeGate scandal, conservatives were very leery about Christie,” said Keith Appell, a conservative Republican strategist. “He’s very attractive on a personal level because he’s willing to take on the unions, which is always a winner among conservatives. But there’s also been the other side of that double-edged sword, which is his my way or the highway way of governing, and this gets him into trouble.”

But to get the kind of boost he’d need to regain the valuable ground he’s lost over the past few months, Christie will have to do more than just hit a single — he’ll have to knock it out of the park.

“He’s got to change the subject,” Shirley said. “He needs to find a signature issue that he can be identified with, and that will please conservatives.”

Mike DuHaime, Christie’s political strategist, told The Hill the governor will address CPAC in his role as RGA chairman, touting the successes of governors nationwide.

“You’ll hear somewhat about how things are working in the states and how Republican governors are getting things done, and how that compares favorably to what’s happening in Washington,” DuHaime said. 

“He’ll certainly include some examples from his own tenure as well,” DuHaime added, offering Christie’s work on education and pension reform in New Jersey as examples.

DuHaime said Christie will also touch back on the narrative he worked to build with his landslide win in the Garden State in November: That he knows how to win where many Republicans don’t.

“He’ll mention the success we’ve had too in terms of winning in a blue state,” he said. “That the way you can win, both politically and in terms of a policy point of view, is reaching out to people who aren’t a part of our coalition.”

And he argued Christie isn’t fazed by the potential for a chilly reception from conservatives. 

“He is who he is, he’s very comfortable with who he is, and not everybody’s going to agree. And that’s part of our point [about reaching out] — going to places you may not feel comfortable,” DuHaime said.

And though the governor is known for his show-stopping speaking abilities, he’s sharing the Thursday schedule with a number of other conservative stars who have a proven ability to bring down the house at CPAC, like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). 

And both of those likely presidential contenders will be facing a friendly crowd, while Christie could still get an icy reception from the conservative gathering. 

“I don’t really know what he does to separate himself from [Sen. Marco] Rubio [R-Fla.] or Paul or Cruz, who conservatives identify with a lot more closely,” Appell said.

Still, Christie has impressed observers with his skill in handling politically tricky situations before, like with the two-hour press conference he held after damning emails and texts tying his administration to the bridge closures leaked.

The crowd on Thursday might be more receptive than the New Jersey press corps was. The scandal has given some conservatives reason to take a second look at the governor, and cause to defend him from Democratic attacks.

In fact, conservative strategist Matt Schlapp argued the scandal might have given him an unusual opening with skeptics.

“Sometimes, when you’re attacked so mercilessly by the press, it can have the effect of making the base of your own party view you even more favorably,” Schlapp said. “There is certainly some of that that’s happening.”