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

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

Christie’s post-Sandy surge has his rivals resorting to the kind of comments they once criticized Christie for. The Democratic senate president, Stephen Sweeney, mused about the fact that millions in disaster-relief aid would amount to a job-­creation package. “I guess he prayed a lot and got lucky because a storm came,” groused Sweeney, who subsequently apologized.

Even as he keeps local Democrats on the run, it’s not clear whether Christie’s success will help him with the national GOP. Some Republicans believe Christie’s chummy tour with Obama gave the President a decisive boost in the election’s homestretch and suggest he was influenced by the fact that the President was about to crush Romney in his state. (Obama won New Jersey by 18 points.) A former aide says Romney, a former governor himself, understood that Christie was simply doing his job. But not everyone has forgiven him, including Rush Limbaugh, who suggested that Christie had a romantic crush on the President and had played “the role of Greek column” for Obama’s re-election. (“If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics,” Christie barked at the time, “then you don’t know me.”)

Christie’s advisers say those memories have already faded—or will soon. “I think that was very short-lived,” says his friend and strategist Bill Palatucci. After eight years out of the White House, Republicans will be desperate to find a winner and may appreciate that bashing Washington is almost always smart politics—and bashing his own party when it is deeply unpopular might be the shrewdest politics of all. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” slogan in 2000 was in part a way of distancing himself from the Newt ­Gingrich–Tom DeLay Congress. If Christie is easily re-elected in a state that hasn’t gone red since 1988, Republicans will have to wonder if he might be the man to restore their unloved brand.

(MORE: Christie Passes on 2012: ‘Now Is Not My Time’)

Defying Gravity
Even so, the path to the White House is littered with the wrecks of moderate Republicans. Jon Huntsman learned that in 2012. Rudy Giuliani tried to bring his Northeastern moderation and post-9/11 heroism to presidential politics but utterly failed to win over the conservative gatekeepers of the Republican primaries. But Christie is no social liberal: he opposes abortion, vetoed a gay-marriage bill and abandoned his onetime sympathy for global-warming measures. And whereas an image of moderation might have been disqualifying in 2012, by 2016, power-starved Republicans may be in the market for someone more flexible.

Before turning his sights to 2016, however, Christie needs to maintain his standing in New Jersey through 2013. State Democrats insist the Christie steamroller can be stopped. As the emotional response to Sandy fades, they argue, the state’s Democratic-leaning voters will gradually refocus on the budget and economic issues, where Christie is to the right of the electorate. “There are so many issues on which he has not delivered,” says assemblyman and state Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski, who explains that Christie has failed to lower property taxes and has relied on reckless borrowing to balance the budget. New Jersey is also staggering under a 9.8% unemployment rate—two points above the national average. “It’s not like there’s a New Jersey miracle,” says one Democratic strategist. “The fact that he’s defying gravity doesn’t mean that gravity won’t reassert itself.”

But as of now, that pudding is waiting for proof. None of the state’s leading Democrats have yet agreed to challenge Christie. And it’s a measure of his strength that one Democrat concedes that the party’s best hope might be for Christie to self-destruct with one of his less endearing tough-guy tirades late in the race.

(MORE: Christie Wants More)

It also remains to be seen whether Christie can follow through on his talk of bipartisanship. He remains dedicated to conservative economic principles like tax cutting and reduced regulations in a state where both enjoy limited support. “This is a governor who has repeatedly pushed policies that are staunchly conservative,” says Brigid Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University. “I think he’s found a formula that works, but the reality doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the rhetoric.”

Like the governor, Christie’s advisers are wary of talking too much about the next presidential election. “The governor has been very clear to everyone around him that the focus is on 2013 and nothing but 2013,” says Palatucci. “People are trying to figure out what he’s doing? He’s just doing his job.”

But it’s clear that Christie thinks about how he might take his local success to the national stage. The day after his State of the State address, he played his moment cannily, hitting all three network morning shows.

And when a local paper asked him the same question he was asked in late 2010—whether he was ready to be ­President—Christie struck a different tone. ­“Yeah, you’re damn right I’d be more ready,” he said.

MORE: Chris Christie on a No-Red-Meat Diet

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