New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) painted former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the establishment GOP presidential contender and himself as the grassroots candidate at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Thursday.
“If what happens is the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide the nominee, then he’s the front-runner,” Christie said in a 20-minute question-and-answer session with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
Christie said if the hardworking taxpayers he fights for every day are the ones deciding the Republican presidential nominee, “I’ll do OK.”
She asked Christie whether he could compete with Bush’s “fundraising machine,” deep political connections and the “fancy political consultants” he has brought on to one day staff his campaign.
“I would run a hard-fighting campaign where I’ll fight for the taxpayers of this country and I’d take my chances on me, I’ve done pretty well so far,” Christie answered.
Christie and Bush are both viewed by many Republicans as running in the establishment lane for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush appears to have the early edge. He has moved early into the presidential fray and locked down many of the establishment-minded donors that Christie is also competing for.
But many of his answers highlighting his conservative credentials, particularly on social issues and education, were designed to appeal to the GOP base activists attending the three-day conservative confab.
Ingraham pushed Christie on whether his nascent potential presidential candidacy was already doomed, citing a Public Policy Poll released earlier this week that showed him in fifth place and taking only 5 percent support. Christie was at the top of the same poll earlier in the presidential cycle, and he's suffered from a spate of bad press and missteps.
Christie’s message was clear: It’s early, I’ve been underestimated before, and I won’t go down easy.
“Is it election week?,” Christie asked to laughs from the crowd. “In 2009 when no Republican had been elected in New Jersey in 12 years, everybody said there’s no way Chris Christie can win.”
He said he took 61 percent of the vote that year and was buoyed by support from women and minority groups in the race.
Christie and Ingraham walked on stage to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and the format worked to Christie’s strengths.
Christie’s supporters and neutral political observers say the New Jersey governor can get his mojo back on the campaign trail in face-to-face interactions where Christie charms supporters with his straight-talking style.
Some of Christie’s biggest applause lines on Thursday showcased that element of his personality. Ingraham ticked off a list of words that have been used to describe Christie, like “short-tempered,” “hot head” and “impatient."
“Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up,” Christie said to an enthused audience.
Christie also sought to burnish his conservative bona fides, arguing that he’s a “straight out unabashed pro-life candidate,” highlighting his clashes with unions in his state, arguing that he’s had a change of heart on Common Core and taking frequent swipes at the media that “just wants to kill you every day.”
“Here’s the bad news for them,” Christie said. “I’m still here. Here I am.”
The interview was well-received, provoking numerous rounds of applause and earning a standing ovation at the end. It could give Christie the momentum he badly needs after a difficult first few months of the year, but the appearance fell short of his 2014 barn-burner.
Last year, Christie electrified convention goers in a red-meat speech that kept the crowd on its feet. In 2013, Christie was famously snubbed, getting passed over in part for his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, which some Republicans believe helped doom the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney.