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Expectations high for keynote from straight-talking Gov. Chris Christie

Chris Christie’s pugnacious style has proven polarizing in his home state, but the governor’s supporters and critics all agree on one thing: The man knows how to wow an audience. 

Elected officials from both parties in New Jersey who have observed Christie up close expect the governor to deliver a knockout performance when he takes the stage Tuesday night for the keynote address at the Republican National Convention.

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“He’s a wonderful orator,” said New Jersey state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who, as Senate majority leader, often clashes with Christie.

“One of the best communicators, if not the best, in the Republican Party today,” declared Mike Ferguson, a U.S. representative (R-N.J.) from 2000-2008 and self-professed “good and longtime friend” of the governor.

“There have been a lot of convention keynote addresses over the years, and most of them are forgotten,” said Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R), who headed Christie’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 2009. “I suspect Chris’s will be one that is remembered.” 

Team Romney apparently shares that confidence, picking the combative first-term governor and trusted surrogate to deliver a speech that will be one of the most widely watched and -analyzed of the four-day convention.

“He’s someone people will tune in to see and hear,” said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “He’s a national political celebrity, and he will add some spice to the Romney campaign.”

While the choice of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) brings some financial and budgetary gravitas to the Romney ticket, “Christie brings a fight,” Zelizer said.

Because he will be giving a speech and not dealing directly with the state Legislature, union leaders or the press, voters are unlikely to see Christie’s legendary truculence in its raw form. 

Still, Zelizer notes, Christie will certainly have opponents to go after.

“People will be watching to see how he attacks the Democrats and the White House,” he said.

Christie’s style on the stump matches his tough-guy reputation. New Jersey state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., the Senate Republican leader and son of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R), said the governor is “second to none in explaining his actions in simple, straightforward language.”

Ferguson said Christie is “enormously smart” and combines sharp forensic skills “with a bluntness that is just so refreshing.”

“People are sick of the blah-blah-blah of empty political rhetoric. They really want and like a leader who is straightforward,” he said.

But what Ferguson and others call refreshing bluntness, some call bullying. 

“He’s not only publicly called a reporter stupid, he’s also called one of my legislative colleagues an idiot and another one, who happens to be gay, a ‘numbnuts,’ ” said Weinberg.

“There’s a part of me that admires him for getting the conversation where it needed to be,” she said. “But he goes too far. He needs to learn to self-regulate.”

That’s just Christie being Christie, say supporters.

“He is who he is,” Kyrillos said. “He doesn’t pull punches. He doesn’t say one thing in one place and another thing when he’s someplace else.”

But Weinberg questioned whether Christie is still his own man, now that he’s become a top surrogate for Romney.

“There is something wrong with him standing up and speaking for positions he doesn’t share,” she said.

“I’m talking about the big issues — moving Medicare to a voucher system, saying women should not have a right to birth control. How can he stump for such positions? He should be standing up to his party for holding these extremist positions. But he is not doing that.”

Christie’s brand of conservatism might be more centrist than the Tea Party variety, but his positions have bent to the right recently. He used to be pro-choice, but shifted a few years ago and now opposes abortion rights. He supported an assault-weapon ban, but has stayed mum on that issue as governor.

It is clear that, as Ferguson said, “he will work very hard for the Romney campaign.”

“The challenges we face as a country are great and require the honesty and boldness of the Romney-Ryan team,” Christie said in a statement upon being chosen to give the keynote. “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.”

Christie’s speech for Tuesday night has not been made public, but he’s indicated in recent published reports to expect his signature brash style. He said he didn’t think Romney chose him to speak “hoping I would show up and be somebody else. I don’t think they have any expectation, nor have they requested that I have a personality-ectomy.”

Christie said he believed he was picked “because of the things I’ve done here and what that can mean for the rest of the country.”

How he presents his New Jersey story was on display this spring when he stumped for Wisconsin’s embattled Gov. Scott Walker (R).

“You see what I’ve been able to do is give Scott and the people of Wisconsin a little preview of what good conservative governance can do for states,” Christie said, in Oak Creek, Wis., in early May. “New Jersey is giving a preview for Wisconsin as to good things that can happen when you stand up for the people of your state and stand against the special interests who have owned these state capitals for much too long.”

How he translates that state-centric theme into support for the national Republican platform remains to be seen.

Democrats say Christie much-trumpeted success in New Jersey is overblown, with unemployment at 9.6 percent and the state ranked 47th in economic health. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said Christie “hasn’t been that successful,” while Weinberg called Christie’s achievements “a fantasy” and a “house of cards.” 

But there won’t be any of that criticism Tuesday night, at least not from inside the walls of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Political conventions are inherently one-sided affairs.

This week belongs to the Republicans, and Tuesday night to Christie.