Visiting Iowa for the third time this year, Gov. Chris Christie blasted President Barack Obama for “taking bows” while ISIS is beheading people, arguing that terrorism has been “emboldened by the lack of leadership from Washington.”
The tough-talking Republican also sought to sell his New Jersey leadership style as a model for what can be done on the national level, and took on perceptions his persona can’t take hold in a place like Iowa.
“What we’re doing in New Jersey can be done across the entire country, but it takes strength,” he said at a Dallas County GOP event in West Des Moines. “And it takes straight and direct talk to people.”
‘Man in a dark room’
Christie, who reminded the audience that it was his 13th time to Iowa since 2011, talked at length about foreign policy, mostly accusing the President of pulling back from the world while taking credit for trying to root out terrorism.
“You see the President taking bows, saying he has terrorism on the run, yet ISIS is beheading people and burning foreign soldiers alive,” he said.
The governor noted that he was nominated as U.S. Attorney by President George W. Bush the day before the 9/11 attacks, and he spoke with emotion about people he knew who died in the World Trade Center.
“Global terrorism and radical Islam is not a theory to me,” he said, adding that he makes “no apologies for fighting terrorism hard” in that office, which he held for seven years before running for governor in 2009.
Christie didn’t delve into specifics on what he would do in the war on terror but said stronger leadership doesn’t necessarily mean “boots on the ground in every conflict.”
He stressed, however, a need for better diplomacy and “empowering our allies and friends.”
When asked by CNN after the speech what he thinks Congress should do when the White House seeks authorization to fight ISIS, Christie declined to wade further into the issue.
“I’ve said all I’m going to say tonight,” he said as he was leaving. “At some point I just got to get to my car and go home.”
Playing off the name of his political action committee, Leadership Matters for America, Christie said in his speech that “it matters who sits in that office” and “the attitude and the approach” that they take.
“The President appears to be a man in a dark room struggling up against the wall looking for the light switch of leadership,” he said. “Well, everybody, he hasn’t found that light switch for six years, and he’s not going to find it in these last two.”
‘I’m not going to shrink away from that’
Christie helped kick off a speakers series for the Dallas County GOP that will feature other GOP presidential hopefuls Rick Perry next month, Rick Santorum in April and Carly Fiorina in May.
The county, which is the state’s fastest growing and has a heavy turnout in the Iowa caucuses, had one of the biggest showings for Mitt Romney in the 2012 nominating contest. It holds a mix of Des Moines office workers and people who work in agriculture.
An aide to Christie said the governor has seen “dozens of invitations” to events in Iowa, as well as “dozens of notes of support” should he decide to run for president.
Still, he has a long way to go, according to a recent Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll, which showed Christie tied with Santorum for eighth place at 4%. He was also considered “too moderate” by nearly half of Republican caucus goers.
On Monday night, Christie tried to show how his direct, candid style helped get things done in a largely blue state with a Democratic legislature. He pointed to the property tax cap he helped put in place at 2% last year, and boasted that New Jersey has 8,000 fewer state employees since he came into office. He also highlighted a pension and public employee benefit fight that he waged during his first term.
Christie also sought to turn conventional wisdom on its head, calling his big personality a strength, not something that will alienate Iowans.
“What we need now in the country more than anything else is some blunt, direct, straight-talk that fixes big problems that we’ve been avoiding for too long because we care more about the comfort of peoples’ feelings than telling the truth,” he said. “I’m not going to shrink away from that ever.”
“One of the great things about Reagan was that Americans felt like they knew him,” he later added, name checking the GOP presidential hero.
Tim Albrecht, a GOP strategist who works for Dave Kochel, a consultant recently hired by Jeb Bush, said in a recent interview that Iowans are adept at smelling out inauthenticity.
“Iowans value a person who tells it like it is and doesn’t change their message for the crowd they’re addressing. So far Christie is passing that test,” he said.
While at times playing up his record of working with Democrats, Christie also blasted New Jersey Democrats in the legislature for engaging in what he called cheap political ploys, such as passing a ban on pig gestation crates when the state produces “almost no pork.”
The ban, supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle in New Jersey, was meant to pressure the ambitious governor should he ever need to win support in a pork producing state – such as Iowa in a presidential primary.
“If that doesn’t prepare you for the craziness in Washington, D.C., I don’t know what would,” he said.
Taking questions from the audience after his remarks, Christie was asked about his position on Common Core, a set of federal education standards. The governor previously expressed support for the controversial testing standards, calling Common Core in 2013 “one of those areas where I have agreed more with the President than not.”
Last year, however, he appointed a commission to review the effectiveness of the program, and he pledged to “take some action” when the report comes back in “six to eight weeks.”
“I have grave concerns about the way this is being done, especially the way the Obama administration has tried to implement it through tying it to federal funding,” he said.
Several Republicans who had initially supported Common Core – such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – now oppose it, largely citing federal government overreach. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, however, stands by his support, making it a potentially potent primary issue.
‘I like Iowa a lot’
John Strathman, co-chair of the Dallas County GOP, said he thinks Christie “helped himself” with his remarks Monday night, saying the governor does better in smaller settings like the conference room at the Marriott Hotel in West Des Moines.
But Christie will face the challenge in Iowa of trying not to fall into the mold of Romney, another northeast governor who turned off a lot of conservatives in 2012, Strathman said. He also pointed out that Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is also the governor of a blueish state and will be competing against Christie on that front.
Christie, who met with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday, said he plans to return to the Hawkeye State next month for an agriculture summit where a slate of other Republican candidates will also speak.
“I’m still working through the decision making process of whether to run or not. I haven’t made those kinds of decisions. I’ll make them when I need to,” he told reporters as he was getting in his car. “I have no reluctance about being here. I like Iowa a lot.”