OXON HILL, Md. - Calling on fellow Republicans to focus on "what we're for and not what we're against," Gov. Christie made his pitch to his party's right wing Thursday, describing himself to conservative activists as a "pro-life" leader who has governed a blue state effectively.
The Republican governor, who has often touted his ability to work with Democrats, drew a contrast with the other party during remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Our ideas are better than their ideas, and that's what we have to stand up for," he said.
Christie told Republicans "to stop letting the media define who we are," and said it was critical that the party take a competitive approach. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," he said.
Christie was applauded several times during the energetic 15-minute speech and got a standing ovation. His reception was a subject of speculation, given that he was not invited to the event last year. Some conservatives had criticized Christie's friendliness with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.
On Thursday, Christie accused Obama of failing to lead the country, saying leaders shouldn't be "standing on the sidelines and spitballing." He dismissed the president's recent focus on income inequality.
"We don't have an income-inequality problem; we have an opportunity-inequality problem," Christie said.
The governor was part of a lineup of prominent Republicans - some possible 2016 presidential contenders - who spoke at CPAC on Thursday, the first day of the three-day event.
Some were fiery: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz called for eliminating the IRS and saw a need "to repeal every single word of Obamacare." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who walked onstage holding a rifle in the air, declared that Obama was "treating our Constitution worse than a place mat at Denny's."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio focused on foreign policy, warning that global instability would harm the economy. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan called for Republicans to work together, saying the labels often attached to conservatives - tea party, libertarian, social conservative - represented differences less about principles than about tactics.
"We should give each other the benefit of the doubt," Ryan said.
Christie, who was seen as the likely front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination after his 22-point reelection win in November, has been under fire as his administration continues to face investigations into lane closures at the George Washington Bridge.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that three out of 10 Republicans said they would not vote for Christie if he ran for president - the highest percentage for any Republican tested. The poll did not break down the reasons respondents offered.
Christie, who has continued to rake in cash as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, on Thursday praised fellow GOP governors "for getting things done," including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also is seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
Christie blasted Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for denouncing the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, whom Christie defended as "two American entrepreneurs." Reid, he said, "should get back to work."
But Christie's criticisms didn't encompass only Democrats. He decried the "dysfunction" in Congress, and said Republican leaders needed to do more than say they are against Obamacare, higher taxes, and bigger government.
"We need to also talk about what we are for," he said. "We need to talk about the fact that we are for a free-market society that allows your effort and your ingenuity to determine your success, not the cold, hard hand of government . . . which is what this administration is all about."
Talking up his record, Christie pointed to changes in New Jersey's pension system he signed into law in 2011, portraying himself as unafraid to take on public-employee unions.
Christie repeatedly emphasized that he was against abortion, telling the crowd that "twice - twice - for the first time since Roe v. Wade, New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor of New Jersey,"
Claiming that Democrats had not allowed an antiabortion Democrat to address their national convention, Christie said, "They're the party of intolerance, not us."
A strong performance at CPAC is not essential to winning the Republican nomination, said Bruce Haynes, a Washington GOP strategist, noting that Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney weren't "darlings" of the event.
"But a potential nominee does need to attend, break bread, and make peace," Haynes said.
At the conference, Michael Nathan of New York City praised Christie's speech as "terrific," particularly the message that Republicans need to focus on winning elections. As Republicans, "we can't be so divisive," said Nathan, who works in real estate. "I'm a moderate Republican - they don't even want me in the party sometimes."
Nathan said the bridge controversy "doesn't bother me at all" and wouldn't stop him from voting for Christie - although, compared to Obama, "I'd vote for a chair."
Others in attendance were more critical. John Sperling of Springfield, Va., said the controversy hinted at the type of "thugocracy" Christie would run as president.
"It's just his arrogance and his New Jersey style," said Sperling, a self-described constitutionalist who supports Cruz. The bridge incident, he said, "is a silly thing to have blow up in your face."