Christie basks in NFL limelight


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is ready for some football.

A spokesman confirmed Friday that the governor will be traveling to Lambeau Field on Sunday to cheer on his Dallas Cowboys in their playoff clash against the Green Bay Packers — and he will have his now-famous “lucky” orange sweater with him.

Christie’s Cowboys fandom is genuine, but it is also paying rich political dividends, observers say.

Strategists on both sides of the aisle are shaking their heads in awed disbelief at how the governor has milked his enthusiasm for the NFL, one of the most popular institutions in the country, for political gain ahead of a possible run for the White House.

“He’s very — in bold — savvy when it comes to politics and the media,” one Democratic strategist from New Jersey said. “I mean — he looks like a regular football fan and he’s got [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones calling him a lucky charm. It’s fascinating.”

“No question about it, the best thing that could happen for Christie is for the Cowboys to keep winning,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

The odd Christie-Cowboys marriage has won the New Jersey governor media coverage across the nation, from local news reports to late-night talk shows and major sports publications.

Jones happily insists that Christie is “part of our mojo” and says he wants him to keep coming to games.

The media frenzy started last Sunday, when cameras caught Christie embracing Jones and his son after the Cowboys secured a win over the Detroit Lions to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.

Christie has since struck up a friendly Twitter rivalry with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Packers fan and potential rival for the GOP presidential nomination.

A top-dollar media consultant could hardly have dreamed up a better scenario. At a time when he might otherwise be feeling marginalized by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) moves toward the presidential race, or pressured over lingering questions about “Bridgegate,” Christie is at the center of America’s annual football frenzy.

No other candidate, Republican or Democrat, has attracted so much attention of late from the huge swathe of the public that takes only a passing interest in politics.

“It’s off the charts,” O’Connell said of Christie’s media savvy.

The media coverage is also fixing Christie even more firmly in the public mind as a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar politician.

While most Dallas supporters rock their Cowboys sweatshirts or DeMarco Murray jerseys, and everyone in Jones’ suite is buttoned up in a suit and tie, Christie remains committed to his tattered “lucky” sweater.

The sweater’s literal color is bright orange. Figuratively, it is as blue-collar as it gets. As a working class touchstone, Christie could scarcely have outdone it, even if he had driven a pickup truck to the game with Bruce Springsteen playing in the tape deck.

“He talked about that sweater three different times [on New York sports radio] the other day,” an exasperated Democrat said. “He had [host and former NFL quarterback] Boomer Esiason calling him by his first name. That orange sweater, that good luck charm stuff, that’s what people are thinking about. They’re not thinking about who paid for his trip out there.”

Christie’s authenticity, a pillar of his public persona, was on full display last Sunday in Jones’ suite, and his joyous outburst at the end of the game is the GIF that keeps giving.

Nobody disputes that the embrace — which came after an abandoned attempt at a high-ten, included dancing, and faced the challenge of incorporating three people instead of two — was awkward. Even Christie has said so.

But the governor will have ample opportunities to appear presidential, and the embrace struck many people as a genuine, spontaneous moment. That’s a rare phenomenon in the scripted world of politics in 2015.

“He’s got a sense for what plays in Peoria,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “Football fans look at him up with Jerry Jones in that booth and they think, ‘He’s just like me, he’s just a lucky bastard who gets invited to these things, I wish I was up there’.”

Christie is a regular caller to sports radio shows in the New York and New Jersey markets, and he’s long been open about the complexities involved in rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Mets and New Jersey Devils.

But his openness and evident sincerity about his sporting enthusiasms have helped him avoid the traps that other politicians have fallen into, with references that have appeared stilted and forced.

Mitt Romney infamously cited his pursuit of “small varmints, if you will” as evidence of his passion for hunting. And while there is some doubt about whether John Kerry ever actually said, "Who among us does not like NASCAR?,” the quote dogged his 2004 presidential candidacy.

President Obama has also provoked eye-rolls in response to his purported love for the Chicago White Sox. In 2010, Obama whiffed on a softball served up to him in the color booth at Comiskey Park, when he was unable to recall his favorite player on the team was when he was growing up.

Still, Christie’s path has potential pitfalls.

Some critics have called attention to the fact that Jones paid for Christie to fly out to Dallas on his private plane, and have alleged a conflict of interest and a violation of ethical codes because Jones and his associates have business dealings with the New Jersey Port Authority.

Christie’s presence in Jones’ suite also calls attention to the fact that the New Jersey governor is no longer a blue-collar Jersey kid — he’s a powerful establishment Republican with billionaire friends.

“That’s the line he’s up against and he’s in danger of crossing it,” Murray said. “From being the everyman to being the typical politician on the take.”

A Christie spokesman got out in front of that charge in relation to Sunday’s game. Michael Drewniak said in an email to media outlets Friday that “the governor will be paying for travel and tickets for himself, his sweater and his son to make sure we keep silliness out of the football season.”

The message is clear. Christie seems content to ride the Cowboys wave until it crashes, with the best-case scenario for him being a trip to Phoenix for the Super Bowl in February.

“Football is an American sport and he’s rooting for America’s team,” O’Connell said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”