By A.B. Stoddard - 08/30/12 03:49 PM EDT
TAMPA, Fla. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie let the open secret of the Republican National Committee out in prime time Tuesday night, onstage before millions of American voters: The highly choreographed, controlled and unified GOP convention is also the competitive, sneaky, gossipy but not-at-all mysterious kickoff of the 2016 primary. Sure, Mitt Romney could win, which would put the next primary off until 2020, but for rising Republican stars it's time to get going.
Christie, given the enormous responsibility and honor of delivering the keynote speech the very day after the New York Post reported he refused to join Romney's ticket because he thought Romney would lose, gave what could largely be described as his own nominating speech. He arrived on stage clapping, as if for himself, and then began talking about himself and couldn't stop. The obligatory Romney mention came nearly at the end of the speech, and after spending a few paragraphs on the former Massachusetts governor and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Christie veered back to his call for leadership, guts and greatness, and then closed with a promise to fight for Mitt Romney and to stand up for him.
Most Republicans have concluded that should Romney lose, Ryan would become the party's standard-bearer and likely take a lead if he ran for president. Rubio is the clear second in star power and will introduce Romney on Thursday night. Walker received the loudest applause of any speaker Tuesday and Jindal missed his opportunity entirely to reintroduce himself to the party and the country after his dismal State of the Union response of 2009, staying home to perform his duties as governor of Louisiana as it rides out Hurricane Isaac. All of them know that helping the team ultimately helps them, but Christie's speech put himself directly at odds with the humility and unity required of Republicans this week — especially those who want most to run.
In his speech he made clear that he has taken on the old ways, the third rail, the teachers unions and the naysayers in the Garden State — with impressive success. And Christie said his mother taught him it’s better to be respected than loved. He believes "we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved." But what Christie is likely to learn in the process of trying to be president is that climbing the ladder isn't something that can be done alone. Being feared and respected might work in the governor’s mansion in Trenton, but in winning his party over faction by faction, leader by leader, coalition by coalition, Christie will need to be a team player and he will need a little love.
Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.