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How to get elected? Ask Christie

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
updated 1:28 PM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, won a second term in a traditionally blue state.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, won a second term in a traditionally blue state.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Chris Christie won 60% of the vote in a blue state: GOP should take note
  • Christie also got 51% of Hispanic vote, he says, very unusual for a Repbulican
  • Navarrette says as a Latino voter, he finds Christie's straight talk appealing
  • He says Christie flip-flopped on immigration, but Latinos care about bread-and-butter issues

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter @rubennavarrette.

San Diego (CNN) -- Election week is the perfect time for Americans to think about what we want in a candidate and what we don't.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who handily won re-election this week with 60% of the vote, believes that he has the answers.

We should all pull up a chair and listen, but especially the GOP. It's not every day that a Republican governor makes such inroads with the type of voters who tend not to vote Republican.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

How's this for a headline? According to CNN exit polls, at a time when Republicans are struggling to get as little as 35% of the Hispanic vote, Christie got 51%. How did that happen?

The man being touted as the new front-runner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination provided a clue during an appearance Tuesday on CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

"I think sometimes we forget that candidates matter," Christie said. "It's not just about a checklist of issues. It's also about how a person presents themselves as a candidate, how they articulate their view on things and how they react to certain situations. People make judgments based on all those things."

Of course, he's right. Reporters will spend the next few days scouring Christie's record as governor and, before that, as U.S. attorney in New Jersey for a silver bullet that they will claim helped woo Latino voters. It's the wrong thing to do. As Christie noted, voters don't walk into the polling booth with a scorecard. But reporters will look over the record just the same.

They'll center on immigration, even though polls have consistently showed that Latinos care more about bread-and-butter matters such as jobs, education, the economy and health care.

On immigration, with Christie, reporters will find a mixed bag. In April 2008, while serving as U.S. attorney, he used a speech at a church to take aim at the idea that just being in the country without permission is illegal.

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"Being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime," the prosecutor said. "The whole phrase of 'illegal immigrant' connotes that the person, by just being here, is committing a crime. ... Don't let people make you believe that that's a crime that the U.S. attorney's office should be doing something about."

In July 2010, as governor, during an appearance on ABC's "This Week," Christie called on President Obama and Congress to "put forward a common-sense pathway to citizenship for people." Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had signed the restrictive Arizona immigration law just a few months earlier. Christie said that "states are going to struggle all over the country with this problem" until Washington passes a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Yet, in dealing with another immigration issue in 2011, Christie said he would veto the Tuition Equality Act, a bill allowing students who have been in high school in New Jersey for three years, including undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities. He cited "budget constraints" but also insisted that public money should not go to "people who haven't followed the rules."

That same year, Christie, who was an outspoken supporter of former Gov. Mitt Romney in the GOP battle for the 2012 presidential nomination, attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry, one of Romney chief rivals, for signing a bill in the Lone Star State that allowed illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition.

But last month, in an apparent flip-flop and re-election year conversion, the governor has changed his mind. Now he supports the idea and says that he will try to get it through the legislature. He tried to claim that his previous opposition was about dollars and cents and strictly an issue of budget costs.

Nice try. But remember, Christie also said, in those remarks from 2011, that public money shouldn't go to "people who haven't followed the rules." That reality hasn't changed. Illegal immigrants are still not following the rules. Instead, Christie is changing the rules for his benefit.

What does all this mean to Latino voters? Not much.

When Tapper asked Christie how he would respond to critics who insist that the Republican's success in the dependably blue state of New Jersey is a "triumph of personality over policy," the governor scoffed and once again dismissed the suggestion that voters have a checklist of issues.

"That's not the way that people vote, in my experience," he said. "I think that voting is much more visceral. People say, 'Can I trust this person? Do they lead? Do they tell me the truth?' They look at the issues, too. But that analysis implies that people are robots and just check a list. They don't do that."

Speaking as a Latino voter who has over the past several months taken a liking to Christie for his straight talk and courageous stand against teachers unions, I'll second that.

I'm not looking for someone who agrees with me on all issues, because -- as Christie has noted -- the candidate could just be lying to get my vote. Or she might change her stance and take a position opposite mine once she gets elected.

I care about character and what's in a person's heart. I want someone who inspires me. I want to vote for candidates who know who they are, and they're not willing to change for anyone -- including me.

In my book, a good leader has 10 essential qualities: empathy, vision, courage, integrity, independence, decisiveness, an eagerness to take risks, the ability to discern right and wrong, the willingness to be bold and thoughtful, and an abundance of common sense.

By the way, the last one is sometimes the hardest to come by.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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