New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie steps into the light and looks down the road

When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., later this month, he will be stepping onto a national stage.

How well he performs could help determine his future role for the party and the nation.

People are already speculating about a Cabinet seat for Christie next year, if Mitt Romney defeats Barack Obama, or a presidential bid in 2016, if Romney loses.

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Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, told The Hill that either prize is a real possibility.

“The keynote speech is a recognition that Christie is part of the Republican Party leadership, and clearly he will be in the consideration for future leadership positions,” Zelizer said.

He added that Christie is one of the “fresh voices” in the party, and that is one of the main reasons Romney chose him to give the keynote and to be one of his surrogates — to help allay voters’ fears that Romney is an old-school Republican aristocrat.

That Christie’s fresh voice is often blunt, and his approach tends more to the pugilistic than the aristocratic, are also attributes calculated to fire up the GOP base.

“This will give the country a chance to see the Christie leadership style up close,” said New Jersey state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., the Senate Republican leader and son of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R).

“He’s the same person outside the state as he is inside the state,” Kean said.

But does Christie’s political future lie within New Jersey or elsewhere?

Not all convention keynote speakers go on to higher political echelons. But the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 introduced then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to the nation, and served as a springboard for his successful pursuit of the presidency.

Not only does the prominence of the keynote address stoke existing speculation. Christie himself has often fueled the fire with open-ended answers to inquiries about his presidential ambitions, like the one he gave David Gregory on "Meet the Press" last year.

“I'm going to need a job, David, after 2013, you know?" Christie said. "And so whether it's going to be being governor of New Jersey or do something else ... I'm working the rest of my life anyway, so, it's going to be doing something, David, so maybe it'll be that, who knows?"

He has suggested that he wasn’t ready for a presidential run in 2012 but might be ready in 2016. When asked by USA Today if the keynote speech could serve as a launching pad for presidential aspirations, Christie said, “It's not what you say, but what you accomplish."

The GOP is touting Christie’s accomplishments.

“His leadership proves how the common-sense principles of reducing spending and cutting taxes work in New Jersey and will work for America,” Republican National Convention Chief Executive Officer William Harris said in the release announcing Christie as keynote speaker.

Kean is unstinting in his praise.

“Tenure reform, pension and benefits reform, the merger of educational institutions, a property tax cap, balanced budgets every year, and I could go on,” Kean said. “Just one of those achievements would make any first-term governor justly proud, and he’s done all of that and more in three years.”

Christie’s efforts have resulted in a 2 percent property tax cap enacted in 2010, a 2011 law requiring state union members to contribute more to their benefit packages and a law signed in August of this year that increases the tenure time-standard for teachers from three to four years.

But Democrats read the New Jersey story differently.

N.J. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, said Christie’s speech “will probably anger me.”

“He will probably present a fantasy version of what he’s done in New Jersey,” she said. “It’s like Bush with his 'Mission Accomplished' banner when the mission wasn’t accomplished. We have 9.6 percent unemployment in New Jersey, more than a percentage point above the national average, and we are ranked 47th among the states in economic health. 

“He talks about investing in the state’s future, yet he killed the Hudson tunnel project, the largest investment in state infrastructure in the country,” she said.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), in a statement to The Hill, also posed doubts about Christie’s record.

“I’m pleased that he’s getting the moment in the sun. I don’t mean to sound churlish, but I hope he doesn’t use the occasion to tout the great success that he has had in New Jersey, because he hasn’t been that successful.”

The scrutiny into Christie’s record that would come with a presidential bid would perhaps not be as intense if Romney wins this year’s election and offers Christie a Cabinet post. Probably because of his background as a successful district attorney, his name has been bruited about as a possible attorney general in a Romney administration.

“There’s conjecture about that,” Weinberg said. “There’s also conjecture that he could take a job with Fox television.”

Weinberg and others cited another rumor that Christie might not seek reelection as New Jersey’s governor.

She said Christie’s New Jersey policies have created “a house of cards, which is bound to eventually fall apart. He may see that and not want to be around for it.”

Mike Ferguson, a U.S. representative (R-N.J.) from 2000-2008 and self-professed “good and longtime friend” of Christie's, said that people who speculate about what the governor might do in the future are missing the point.

“He stays focused on the job at hand, that’s his M.O.,” Ferguson said. “He will work hard for Romney, but he will continue to be the best governor he can be for New Jersey. Speculating on such things is difficult, if not impossible, because there are so many factors. He knows you cannot plot a path that adheres to your own career’s best interests. Rather, you serve as best you can in your position, and if opportunities open up because of your good work, then you decide.”

Zelizer added that, while Christie’s fortunes could benefit from his giving the keynote address, it “will not launch Christie’s national career.”

“That’s already been launched,” he said. “He already is a national celebrity.”

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