New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would carry heavy baggage into a 2016 presidential race. Conservative activists distrust him. A budget crisis has revived questions about his leadership. Close aides created traffic problems for his constituents on purpose.
But Christie still has a powerful political engine—a one-of-a-kind personality with the capacity to antagonize, charm, and above all fill any room. Which is precisely what he did Wednesday at the Delivering Alpha conference in New York, presented by CNBC and Institutional Investor. With verve and humor, the Republican governor showed his audience of prominent investors that they should think twice before deciding to bet on other White House contenders.
Christie didn't say he was running. Because he's so well-known, he asserted he can wait until early 2015 before deciding the promise and benefits of a presidential run exceed the costs to him and his family.
He used his non-candidate status as a shield to deflect questions about policy specifics on issues like the Export-Import Bank and infrastructure investments, and declined to say anything at all about likely expected Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. New NBC News/Marist poll numbers this week show he has good reason for caution. One-third of Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire view him unfavorably—higher negative numbers than for any other potential GOP candidate.
But the fact that he sat down for the conversation hours before flying to Iowa showed how thoroughly he is considering his 2016 chances, months after the George Washington Bridge scandal that damaged his public reputation.
He repeated his longstanding contention that he had been unaware of the bridge closure until after the fact. And he zestily dismissed as "bull" and "garbage" the idea that his bully-boy persona had led aides to believe that that was an acceptable tactic. "Someone went rogue," he said.
He flashed the same spunk in dismissing complaints from the right that he had whiffed on free-market principles by denying Tesla the right to sell its electric cars direct to New Jersey consumers, something his state's auto dealers opposed. "Crap," the governor said, insisting that the state legislature needed to pass a law to accommodate Tesla.
That sort of colorful language appeals to many voters weary of political insiders even when wielded by a candidate blaming other politicians for his political woes. While accepting some responsibility for his state's sluggish economic performance, he blamed the policies of tax and spend Democratic in the legislature for impeding his progress. He is, he said, busy guarding taxpayers from "barbarians" in the opposing party reaching for their wallets.
He cast his decision to skip a scheduled state pension payment as a necessary response to subpar revenues rather than the unraveling of his signature bipartisan reform achievement. Raising taxes as Democrats prefer, he said, could damage the state's economy and outweigh the benefit of keeping his pension-financing commitments,
He showed his feisty side, tongue-in-cheek style, when I pressed him a second time on whether he's running for president. "Obnoxious," he replied.
Then he cautioned voters against rivals who show more ambition than wisdom in their eagerness to embrace a race. But that response made clear that his own ambition remains an open road—no traffic cones in sight.
—By CNBC's John Harwood