If Christie Runs, He'll Face a Tough Road to the White House

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Some Republicans are clamoring for the New Jersey governor to join the 2012 presidential race, but he has plenty of reasons to turn them down

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Uncertain of Mitt Romney's conservative bona fides and increasingly doubtful of Rick Perry's electability, Republicans have focused on recruiting another high-profile governor to run for president: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But even a full-court press from conservative donors and power brokers hasn't worn down Christie's resolve - stated publicly, repeatedly, and emphatically - to stay out of the White House race.

That message may have been less adamant but did not appear to have changed when Christie appeared Tuesday at the Reagan Presidential Library. In a question and answer session after his address, a woman pleaded with the governor to run for president "I implore you" the questioner said. She got a standing ovation from the audience but not much encouragement from the governor. Christie, who spent much of his hour on stage excoriating President Obama's record, said he was flattered but added that the pleas of others would not suffice to get him into the race. "That reason has to reside within me," said the governor.

Personal feelings aside, there's another reality that Christie's fans -- as well as those hoping for a fashionably late entrance into the race by Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, or ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- have failed to acknowledge: Even if they declare, the latecomers would face a long, difficult road to the nomination. All the conservative celebrity in the world can't make up for lost time.

Just look at what's happened to Perry. Touted as a conservative champion from the Lone Star State, the governor's entrance into the race was greeted with an overflow of enthusiasm among conservatives. But a scant six weeks after declaring, the reality of his late start has set in - he has struggled to explain his past positions on topics ranging from Social Security to immigration, and his performance during the debates, particularly when asked about foreign policy, suggest a candidate who has had little time to prepare on a subject he knows little about.

And Perry began considering a run and quietly reaching out to supporters in June, four months before Christie would.

"You have to get a campaign together, and that takes a time," said John Feehery, a GOP consultant. "You not only need to get bodies, but bodies who trust each other, can work together, and respond to crises.

"You have to do that on the fly," he added, "and it's never been done successfully."

Perfunctory mechanics of a campaign - like registering on the ballot in all 50 states - suddenly become difficult. Preliminary deadlines for getting on some state ballots begin to fall next month. "You have to get your ducks in a row to get your name on the ballots," acknowledged Palin in a Tuesday night interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News where the 2008 vice presidential candidate laid out a case for not running. In early primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, campaigns must build extensive campaign operations, and they must reach across the country to solicit the financial support necessary for a campaign expected to cost at least $50 million.

Even if Christie were capable of building an organization that quickly, he'd still face scrutiny like never before. Before he declared, Perry was also viewed as a conservative champion. But in fewer than two months on the trail, Republican conservatives are questioning -- and in some cases, booing -- his stands on immigration and his effort to mandate that Texas schoolgirls receive a vaccination aimed at preventing cervical cancer in sexually active women.

While the New Jersey governor won widespread conservative praise for taking on public-sector unions, he also has a moderate streak that could raise ire among the GOP base. Among other apostasies, by the standards of GOP conservatives who dominate the party's primaries: He's spoken in favor of allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens and been supportive of civil unions for gay couples.

"The minute he gets in this thing, he'll turn from darling of the conservative movement to target of a nitpick du jour," predicted Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.

Christie supporters could point to former President Clinton's 1992 campaign, which launched in October 1991, as evidence a late start isn't a deal-breaker. Wilson, however, calls that an apples to oranges comparison because of the faster, more intense political climate 19 years later.

"We no longer live in a time when Bill Clinton could raise a million dollars in a quarter and it was a big old deal," he said. "We live in a different world now."

Christie's rise reflects as much unease with Perry as it does interest in the New Jersey governor. A series of poor debate performances and controversial remarks on the stump have raised questions about the Texan's electability and spurred Republican bigwigs to go running, once again, to Christie.

Speculation of a grand late entrance into the presidential campaign from a major candidate is nothing new for either party. In 1992, Democrats pined for then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and four years later many Republicans wanted Gen. Colin Powell to run. The story repeated in 2004, when Democrats talked Gen. Wesley Clark into a bid, and in 2008, when former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee jumped in late.

At least in Republican politics, voters always cast about searching for an alternative to the front-runner, Feehery said.

"There's always kind of a dialectic process in a Republican primary -- they have to find an antithesis to the original thesis in hopes of finding someone else," he said. "And eventually they return to the front-runner."

Angst among the base might have been at an all-time high this year, with Romney seen as the weakest GOP front-runner in generations. But polls show that while many Republicans still want more choices, they're quickly settling on the current field. A New York Times/CBS News poll released earlier this month showed 43 percent of primary voters were satisfied with their presidential choices, compared with just 21 percent in late June.

Image credit: Jason Redmond/Reuters

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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