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.

When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took the podium for his Jan. 8 State of the State address, Trenton’s Democratic legislature received him less as the pugnacious leader of the opposition than as its own conquering hero. Christie was welcomed with a standing ovation, and his speech was staccatoed by thunderous applause. So what if many of those Democrats privately refer to Christie in terms not fit to print? As Christie might say, Don’t be stupid: At this moment, there’s virtually no challenging the man. Christie’s textbook performance after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state in October pushed his approval ratings above 70% and sent his opponents scurrying for cover. Local TV commentators wonder if his upcoming 2013 re-­election fight might be more coronation than campaign. In short, Christie may now be America’s most popular politician. And at a moment when Republicans in Washington look ham-fisted, inflexible and incapable of governing, Christie is poised to show a demoralized post–Mitt Romney GOP how to regain its majority status.

The past three months have transformed a man who was already on virtually everyone’s short list for 2016 into something else entirely. In mid-October, Christie was bogged down in tedious wrangling with the state assembly and reading about the various Democrats eager to steal his job. Then came Sandy. Arriving with ghoulish timing just before Halloween, it was the worst storm to hit New Jersey in a century. Almost 350,000 homes were destroyed, 116,000 people were evacuated or displaced, and nearly 7 million people lost power. Huge swaths of the Jersey Shore, where tourism is an indispensable part of the economy, were devastated. The television airwaves were filled with sobbing, homeless families.

(VIDEO: Chris Christie: Master of Disaster)

The moment was ready-made for Christie’s full-bore political style. “Don’t be stupid,” Christie instructed lollygaggers as the storm approached. “Get out.” His response to the storm acquired a nonpartisan sheen when he set aside his support for Romney to tour storm-ravaged areas with President Obama, whose response he praised as “outstanding.” Recently, Christie tore into House Republicans for dragging their feet on a package of ­disaster-relief aid. Calling the delay “disgusting” and an example of “toxic internal politics” of the House’s GOP majority, Christie said it was a perfect example of “why people hate Washington.”

Do they ever. An overwhelming majority of Americans don’t like Congress, and most Americans want the parties to work together. That’s a sentiment Christie is channeling in New Jersey, which voted for Obama and is a place where a Republican can’t hope to survive for very long without real support from Democrats. Although Christie has butted heads with the legislature, he has also won Democratic votes for agenda items like pension reform and spending cuts. Rather than using his popularity to launch an ideological offensive, Christie struck a tone of conciliation in his State of the State address. “We have established a governing model for the nation that shows that, even with heartfelt beliefs, bipartisan compromise is possible,” he said. “The folks in Washington, in both parties, could learn something from our record here.”

Maybe they can. As former Christie campaign strategist Mike DuHaime boasts, “He gets things done. He gets results. And I think people are thirsting for someone who gets results.” But disaster response can create the easy illusion of results, and the hardest parts of ­governing—taxes, spending, union benefits—remain. One question now is whether Christie can show that his standing in the wake of disaster is real and enduring. But the larger and more important questions are whether Chris Christie of New Jersey is the model for the post-Romney Republican Party and whether a center-right, pragmatic, straight-talking politician like Christie can remake the party in his own image.

(MORE: Chris Christie’s Race to the Bottom)

Down the Shore
“Some things are above politics,” Christie said in his State of the State address, a remark he may well have embroidered on the cuff of his trademark fleece jacket. Hurricane Sandy “was and is one of those things.” But Christie also understands that politics is about emotion. And his response to the storm embodied the kind of unique emotional force that can come only from a disaster. “I’m more emotional than I’ve been probably early in the governorship,” he told New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. “I’m supposing that’s a result of just all the sadness and loss that I saw up so close, holding these people and having them cry on my shoulder.”

Christie was already known as one of America’s most authentic politicians. His chief asset may be a candor in the best Jersey tradition of say-what-you-mean bluntness. “I find his policies odious,” says Kenneth Baer, a former Obama Administration hand with Garden State roots, chuckling. “But I like him. There’s just something so Jersey about him.”

For much of his governorship, Christie’s unfiltered persona has been a mixed bag. His willingness to snap back at questioners in public forums has at times seemed fearless but has also carried a nasty whiff of New Jersey Turnpike road rage. Christie recently expressed regret for calling one ­aggressive ­questioner—who turned out to be a former Navy SEAL—an “idiot.” Still, it was part of his charm that Christie could be candid about his shortcomings, ­talking freely about his weight. (“Man up and say I’m fat” was his response to a 2009 campaign ad by his rival that featured a veiled reference to his mass.) With buzz that he might run for President in the air, Christie even told an interviewer in 2010 that he was “not ready” to be President. While endearing, talk like that has led some Republicans to wonder whether he is disciplined enough to complete a White House run.

MORE: Handicapping the Veepstakes: Why the Clamor for Christie May Go Unheeded

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