Last May, in a radio interview, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said it would be “stressful” to campaign against Jeb Bush if both men run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
“Because I consider Jeb a friend,” Christie said. “And he’s been a wonderful friend to me.”
Today, the New Jersey Republican finds himself needing to draw a contrast with the former Florida governor as they both compete for business-minded Republicans and similar donor pools — a segment of the Republican coalition that, so far, seems drawn to Bush.
He offered an early clue to his approach on Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Asked during a question and answer segment with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham about how he plans to combat Bush’s vast political network and family connections, Christie painted Bush as an elite Washington insider.
“If the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the president’s going to be, then he’s definitely the frontrunner,” Christie said. “If the people of the United States decide to pick the next president of the United States, and they want someone who looks them in the eye and connects with them and is one of them, I’ll do OK.”
His comments indicate that he’s trying to position himself as an outsider against the establishment choice in Bush, a change in dynamic from last year, when Christie was considered the establishment’s favorite son and a Bush candidacy seemed unlikely.
Christie talked up his direct, truth-telling style, saying it’s more appealing to the average voter.
But while he’s trying to distinguish himself from the former governor, he’s not quite ready to start throwing bombs.
Bush was asked point blank on Thursday about Bush’s previous proposal to re-populate Detroit with immigrants — a softball question that would have been eaten up by some of the more conservative speakers at CPAC.
But Christie approached with caution.
“I think that’s misdirecting the priorities,” he said, adding that the concern should be for the “hardworking people” already living in Detroit.
He was set up again.
“Jeb Bush says they’re more entrepreneurial, harder-working and ‘more fertile’ than Americans,” Ingraham interrupted.
“Well first of all, I’m not mentioning the fertility thing,” Christie joked. “The most entrepreneurial people in the world are the people of the United States and that’s why people want to come here.”
The audience applauded.
Christie and Bush indeed have taken similar positions on policy. They’ve both expressed support for Common Core, though Christie now says he has “grave concerns” about the federal government’s role in the testing standards.
They’re also tied by a common history: Christie helped raise money for Jeb Bush’s brother, George W. Bush, when the then-Texas governor was running for president. President Bush appointed Christie for United States Attorney in New Jersey in 2001.
Neither Bush nor Christie are candidates yet, but as the campaign season nears and as Christie continues to struggle to gain traction, he’ll face pressure to start drawing sharper contrasts with Bush.
So far, Christie’s strategy to distinguish himself from the rest of the field has been to embrace the brash, blunt personality that helped make him famous during his first term as governor — indeed a stark difference to the more reserved style of Bush, who admitted in January that he’s an introvert.
“Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up,” Christie said Thursday, defending his outburst against a protester in the fall.
Christie was given another chance to pit himself against Bush. When Christie began touting his town halls — a 90-minute format where he stands in the center of a room as people pepper him with questions — Ingraham asked if he was critiquing Bush, who has taken pre-screened questions from audiences and a moderator at two recent speeches in Chicago and Detroit.
“Everybody who aspires to high positions of leadership in their state and in their country should be willing to take unscreened, unrehearsed questions from the people who pay their salary,” Bush said, again getting some applause.