The Boss

He’s big, he’s brash, and he’s not afraid of picking fights with Republicans or making allies of Democrats. Can Chris Christie bring his wayward party back to the center?

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Photograph by Edward Keating / Contact for TIME

Christie suits up for his annual State of the State address in Trenton, N.J., on Jan. 8.

But what many Americans have seen in Christie is what they don’t see in Obama: someone who is decisive and unfiltered and doesn’t think the world is an impossibly complex place. He may be wrong, he may be right, but he’s never in doubt. It was Sandy that evoked the best part of Christie’s raw persona. If he could be an overbearing bully in political arguments, he was an open hydrant of empathy in the wake of disaster. In the days after the storm, Christie toured nonstop among downed power lines and wrecked boardwalks, doling out countless bear hugs to shattered survivors. It helped a lot that his connection to the devastated areas was authentic. “The pier with the rides where I took my kids this August before the Republican Convention, where I got into that famous yelling match with the guy who was buying an ice cream cone?” Christie reminded reporters. “Those rides are in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Within days, Obama visited the state. Although Christie had delivered the keynote address at the Republican National Convention and campaigned for Romney, Christie and Obama seemed to bond, flying over storm-ravaged areas in Marine One and exchanging robust compliments. Romney campaign aides fumed that Christie was allowing Obama to play the part of nonpartisan crisis manager just days before the election, and Rupert Murdoch warned on Twitter that Christie would have to “take blame for the next four dire years” if Obama was re-elected. But at home, Christie was celebrated for putting the state’s need for swift aid from Washington ahead of campaign politics.

(VIDEO: RNC Wrap-Up: Ann Romney, Chris Christie and What’s Ahead)

Sandy even conferred upon Christie the ultimate seal of Northeastern liberal approval: respect from the Boss. Christie, 50, is a Bruce Springsteen fanatic who has attended some 130 of Bruce’s concerts over the years. But despite their shared Jersey roots, the pro-Democratic Springsteen wasn’t interested in meeting with Christie and wouldn’t even acknowledge him at concerts. That changed after Obama visited New Jersey in October. During the visit, the Commander in Chief brokered a call between Christie and the Boss. The governor and the rocker later met and embraced at a relief concert for Sandy victims, after which Christie confessed he wept. “He told me it’s official: we’re friends,” Christie told reporters.

In both cases, Christie cozied up to liberal icons but stopped short of actually taking on his own party. That changed dramatically in January. Congress managed to avoid the calamity of the fiscal cliff on Jan. 1, but only after embarrassing ­chaos within Republican ranks. With House conservatives in a state of semirevolt after Speaker John Boehner agreed to a plan that raised taxes on wealthy Americans, Boehner delayed a $60 billion disaster-relief bill for Sandy-affected ­areas, with much of the money designated for New Jersey. Christie went rogue. “Shame on Congress,” he said, singling out his Republican allies with bracing vitriol. “There’s only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their Speaker, John Boehner. Last night, politics was placed before an oath to serve our citizens. To me it was disappointing and disgusting to watch.”

Christie zeroed in on his party’s weakest spot, casting House Republicans as Dickensian villains so consumed by their grudge match with Obama that they were stalling aid to homeless storm victims. Though privately protesting that Christie didn’t understand flaws in the bill, which included several long-te­rm non­emergency projects, Boehner and the House Republicans quickly retreated, passing a relief bill (albeit a scaled-down one) within days of the governor’s broadside.

(VIDEO: Governor Christie on Sandy, Romney and Obama)

Washington Republicans saw shameless grandstanding at the expense of a deeply unpopular Congress—an effort to please Northeastern Democrats and the national media elite. “He seems to be doing what the press wants him to do,” says a Republican operative with ties to congressional GOP leaders. “The popular thing is to bash Republicans.”

Will Memories Fade?
But berating anyone who crosses Jersey is also true to Christie’s nature. Born and raised in the state, he’s fiercely proud of its reputation for grit. A Seton Hall Law School graduate, Christie was a law-firm partner in his 30s until he became a U.S. Attorney in 2002, a position in which he made a name prosecuting high-profile public-sector corruption cases.

That job vaulted him into the statehouse in 2009, but he got off to a rough start. Elected with less than 50% of the vote against a Democratic governor who was a former Goldman Sachs CEO, by mid-2011 Christie was foundering with an approval rating in the low 40s. Through aggressive dueling with the Democratic legislature—­including a heavy reliance on combative, even bullying rhetoric—Christie went after public workers’ pensions and teachers’ unions. He also blocked an effort to raise state ­taxes on millionaires. The moves made him popular among pro-business conservatives but less so with ordinary New Jersey voters.

That’s why Garden State Democrats have seemed stunned by his recent resurgence. It was long assumed that his main 2013 rival would be the talented and ambitious Newark Mayor Cory Booker. But Booker is considering a run for the Senate instead. Another top contender from the state assembly has decided to skip the race, and the rest of the field is unclear and unremarkable. One early-January poll showed Christie leading several little-known Democrats in hypothetical matchups by roughly 3 to 1. Earlier this month Christie disclosed that he had raised $2 million for his campaign without holding a single ­fundraising event.

MORE: Cory Booker Finally Solves Newark’s Hot Pockets Crisis

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