TRENTON - Matt Lauer displayed a 1995 campaign flier depicting Chris Christie, then a New Jersey Assembly candidate, supporting a state assault-weapons ban. Does Christie, now governor and a leader of the national Republican Party, support a federal ban?
Four times Lauer asked. And each time, the governor - who proudly proclaims his bluntness - refused to answer. After the mass shooting last month at a Connecticut school, he said that gun control should be part of a broader conversation, along with violent video games, drug abuse, and mental illness.
That was just after 7 a.m. Wednesday on the Today show. On CBS, MSNBC, and ABC that same morning, Christie dodged the same question.
Christie was primarily on TV to talk about the storm known as Sandy, reminding viewers of his widely praised leadership before and after its attack on the Jersey Shore. Christie had just delivered a State of the State speech focused on Sandy and little else in the way of policy. After the interviews Wednesday, he released a video, billed as a "thank you" to New Jersey, featuring him hugging victims to a Bon Jovi soundtrack.
Can Christie, whose approval ratings went as high as 78 percent after the October storm, ride the wave of Sandy success and celebrity all the way to his November reelection? Will it distract voters from issues such as the state's struggling economy and looming budget cuts? And can it simultaneously help him avoid opining on issues such as gun control that might upset conservative voters in a 2016 presidential primary?
Political experts think it can. And they believe that's exactly what the governor's game plan is.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray points to Christie's Saturday Night Live appearance after the storm, in which he wore his trademark fleece and joked that it was attached to his skin. In a PolitickerNJ.com piece on the "anatomy of a reelection strategy," Murray wrote: "Metaphorically at least, that fleece is now his permanent campaign raiment."
After Sandy, Murray polled on property taxes, the most important issue to New Jersey voters. A third gave Christie a "D" or "F" on that issue, but he still scored a 69 percent job-approval rating.
Throughout his term, Christie has controlled the message, in part by employing a sophisticated public-relations team made up of young government employees who blast snippets of TV interviews and news conferences to local and national media. That's likely to continue. Another reason is that he has outmanipulated the Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature but sometimes are unable to get out of their own way.
That happened Monday, when Democrats tried to preempt Christie's State of the State speech by launching the first Sandy-related attack after a period of mutual praise: Christie is "politicizing" the storm, they contended.
The argument may have had legs, but Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) committed a gaffe that grabbed headlines instead. He said that Christie "prayed" for a storm to avoid dealing with the state's other problems.
Sweeney immediately apologized, but Christie, through a spokesman and GOP legislative allies, pounced.
Christie also is benefiting from Democrats' failure so far to unify behind a candidate against him. Only State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) has announced, but the party establishment hasn't warmed to her. After Christie's State of the State address, Buono, Assembly Democrats, and Senate Democrats had separate meetings to react to the speech.
One common theme from Democrats was that Christie spent so much time talking about Sandy that he ignored other key issues: rising property taxes, a record year for homicides in Camden, a potential budget deficit of $2 billion, and an unemployment rate that is among the worst in the nation.
One Democratic pollster thinks that Christie's popularity will fall back to earth, and given that Democrats have a 700,000-vote advantage in New Jersey - and that President Obama won reelection there by 17 points - Christie will have to answer to these bread-and-butter issues come the fall.
"The campaign against him will not be about Sandy," said the pollster, Jeffrey Plaut, who works on polling for The Inquirer.
That won't stop Christie from keeping the conversation on the storm.
The afternoon after his morning TV blitz last week, he released his "Thank You, New Jersey" video, which opens with his declaring a state of emergency and displaying his gruff bluntness to Shore residents - "Don't be stupid, get out!" - as ominous music played. The storm then rolls through, and as the tempo picks up to the melody of Bon Jovi's vocals in "Who Says You Can't Go Home," Christie is shown greeting rescue workers and offering inspiring words at news conferences.
In one scene, ocean water washes up to the governor's shoes, reminiscent of the opening credits of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City.
Christie tweeted the video to famous New Jersey natives, including Jason Alexander and Jon Stewart.
The overall message Christie sent last week, according to Murray, is that "defeating Chris Christie is the equivalent of defeating New Jersey."
Still, the chairman of the Democratic Party, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), said in an interview that the video was "in poor taste" and "crosses the line."
"Because the hurricane wasn't about Chris Christie," he said. "The hurricane was about New Jersey; it was about the people of the state."
Christie's political strategist, Michael DuHaime, said Sandy was only part of the record the governor is running on. He cited the state's smaller government, a 2 percent property-tax cut, and reforms in public-worker benefits and teacher tenure.
"So," DuHaime said in an e-mail, "the totality of his record is far superior to anything any of the would-be opponents could offer."
And with that record to back up images of him as Sandy savior, Christie might not have to offer an opinion on gun control or a fix to property taxes.
"He can dodge the question and sound like he's answering it as good as any politician in the country," said Matthew Hale, political scientist at Seton Hall University, who called the State of the State the "first campaign speech of 2016."
Hale said Christie could run both for governor in 2013 and president in 2016 by rehashing his Sandy fame and sending a message with universal appeal: "The adults are in charge."
Or as Christie put it at his State of the State when he recounted his exchange with a girl named Ginjer whose home was destroyed by Sandy:
"I hugged her and told her not to cry anymore - that the adults are in charge now. . . . In this year ahead, let us prove the truth of the words I spoke to Ginjer that day. Let us put aside destructive politics in an election year. . . . Let's work together to honor the memories of those lost in Sandy."