Chris Christie Endorses Mitt Romney

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, announces his endorsement of former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on October 11, 2011 in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie endorsed Mitt Romney’s presidential bid on Tuesday afternoon the latest jolt of momentum for a campaign that steadily gathered strength with less than three months before the first wave of Republican presidential primaries

At a New Hampshire press conference hours before the Republican candidates were set to debate in Hanover, Christie lauded Romney’s combination of executive experience and private-sector savvy, which he said made backing Romney an “easy decision.” The former Massachusetts governor, Christie said, is “the best candidate to articulate Republican values and defeat Barack Obama in 2012.”

“America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney’s the man we need to lead America,” Christie said. “We need him now.”

Christie’s endorsement, first reported by Fox News, caps a stellar stretch for Romney, who has snatched back the front-runner’s tag and consolidated support as rivals like Rick Perry falter. A pair of NBC-Marist polls released Tuesday show the former Massachusetts governor with a commanding 30-point advantage in New Hampshire and a surprising three-point edge over the ascendant Herman Cain in Iowa – a state where Romney hasn’t ventured in more than a month.

The Hawkeye State numbers come amid amplified whispers that Romney, who is rooting his campaign in economic issues like job creation while rivals jockey for the support of right-wing social conservatives, could opt to launch a strong push in the Iowa caucus after months of downplaying expectations. A strong finish in Iowa, coupled with wins in New Hampshire and Nevada–where Romney boasts comfortable cushions–could choke the suspense from the primary fight before it starts.

The impact of splashy endorsements is often overstated. Endorsements are a better gauge of existing support than a sign of shifting winds.

Even so, there are few national Republicans whose imprimatur carries the weight of Christie’s. The New Jersey Republican, who delighted the party’s base by initiating a series of confrontations with local unions, was the subject of an aggressive courtship by influential conservatives, who implored him to shake up what many viewed as a lackluster GOP presidential field. Christie’s decision to pass on 2012 dovetails with Romney’s surge, signaling that conservatives who held out hope for a white knight to charge into the race may be coalescing around the former Massachusetts governor. And the endorsement could help dispel lingering doubts among Tea Party activists about Romney’s anti-spending bona fides. Romney’s remarks stressed Christie’s place at the heart of the party, calling him a “hero” in GOP circles for his blunt talk and “forthright” style.

Romney — whose business-friendly, more socially moderate platform dovetails with Christie’s own — was the likeliest recipient of the New Jersey governor’s support, a cherished commodity for any candidate in search of a strong proxy. “Christie’s endorsement will be aggressively sought after,” Phil Musser, an ex-senior adviser for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, told the Associated Press last week. “First, he’s now got a national following at the grass-roots and establishment level,” Musser said. “Second, the financial network in New Jersey, if corralled, can produce millions.” Romney now has the pole position in the scramble to pry open the wallets of deep-pocketed Christie supporters who had lurked on the sidelines, hoping to coax the New Jersey governor into the presidential fray. Since Christie dropped out, Romney has already scooped up GOP mega-bundler Paul Singer and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, once the driving force behind the Draft Christie movement.

Christie flashed his skills as a surrogate Tuesday, parrying questions about Romney’s controversial health-care mandate in Massachusetts. He also forcefully condemned Robert Jeffress, a Texas evangelical pastor who supports Perry, for calling Mormonism a “cult” during a summit of social-conservative activists last weekend in Washington. “These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody’s ability to lead,” Christie said. “Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of President of the United States.”

Romney, who is Mormon, called on Perry Tuesday to “repudiate” the pastor’s remarks, signaling his willingness to embrace the burgeoning controversy over the role of faith presidential politics. (Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who is also a Mormon, had previously called Jeffress a “moron” and urged him to dissociate himself from the pastor.) According to the Associated Press, a Perry spokesman declined Romney’s request.

The spat is likely to continue on center stage of Tuesday night’s debate in New Hampshire, when Romney, having cemented his place atop the Republican field, will likely be the primary target of opponents’ barbs.

Updated, 4:00 p.m.