TRENTON - As Gov. Christie approaches rock-star status within certain circles of the Republican Party, candidates nationwide are turning to him for inspiration and advice for November's midterm elections.
The Republican Governors Association is so taken with its new poster boy that it is producing a 20-minute movie, to be released online Sept. 8, about Christie's upset victory over a millionaire Democratic incumbent, Jon S. Corzine, in a heavily blue state, and his first eight months in office.
"I think Gov. Christie is clearly being seen as a model for Republicans throughout the country," said Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for the governors association. "He's providing the type of leadership that Americans are eager for. They see what's going on in Washington - out-of-control spending, higher taxes - and they're happy to see that somebody . . . is doing the exact opposite."
At stake in the midterms are 37 governorships, 36 seats in the U.S. Senate, and all the seats in the House of Representatives.
As the GOP gears up to capitalize on the public's dissatisfaction with President Obama and the dismal economy, some within the party are looking to Christie as an example of both how to win at the polls and how to govern.
During his campaign, Christie took down Corzine by promising to cut government spending and create jobs.
Since Christie's inauguration in January, he has wrangled a Democratic-controlled Legislature mostly into submission and garnered heaps of adoring praise from conservative commentators across the country: A New York Post writer recently declared Christie the object of "breathless, paste-his-picture-in-your-locker" crushes among fiscal conservatives; this month, Christie is the subject of a glowing cover article in the National Review.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan political newsletter the Rothenberg Political Report, said Christie has received a lot of attention because he has been aggressive in pursuing an agenda focused on the budget and taxes.
"It gets everybody's attention because most politicians don't do what they say they will, and Gov. Christie has been different," Rothenberg said. "He hasn't minded taking on the establishment in the state, whether it's the Democratic Legislature or organized labor or whatever."
Still, Rothenberg cautioned against blowing Christie's national reputation out of proportion.
"If you asked 100 Republicans in Oregon what they thought of Christopher J. Christie, half would think he's probably a rightfielder for the Oakland A's, another quarter a drummer for a rock band," Rothenberg said. "Most people still don't know who Christopher J. Christie is."
Some analysts say Christie's win in New Jersey last November has been misinterpreted somewhat by national observers.
Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said that while many outsiders saw a Republican defeating a Democrat, Christie's victory was really more about a state looking for a new direction.
Murray said a mythology was beginning to build around Christie that portrays him as someone who managed to win election in a blue state and push policies through a Democratic Legislature with little opposition, despite his relative lack of political experience. Murray said Christie looked like a new hero for the Republican Party, "when it's a lot more complicated than that - it has a lot less to do with party differences than with where New Jersey is now."
Indeed, within New Jersey, while Christie's rating in opinion polls is improving, he is still not terribly popular. In a Quinnipiac University poll released Aug. 19, voters approved of the job Christie is doing by a margin of 51-36 percent, up from 44-43 in June. But 46 percent said the governor was "confrontational" rather than "honest and refreshing."
Those admiring Christie from afar have also sometimes taken him at his word for his accomplishments.
The governor has often boasted of closing an $11 billion budget gap without raising taxes, for example. But he doesn't explain that $3 billion of that amount was payments for public-employee pensions that he simply ignored, which will mean considerably bigger bills for taxpayers down the road.
Still, Christie's swaggering style and straightforward way of speaking have clearly won him admirers. Videos of the governor dressing down a teacher at a town-hall meeting and blasting a reporter at a news conference have gone viral.
"I think the biggest political asset he's got going for him is that he's got his own personality," said Bill Pascoe, a Republican strategist. "He is the ultimate Jersey guy. He's brash, he's confident, he's up-front, he's candid, he's blunt.
"He doesn't hide behind staff, and he tells everyone he deals with - staff, political allies, political opponents, voters, residents, the guy who delivers his morning newspaper - the straight scoop," Pascoe added. "In a time when voters are ever more wary and distrustful of politicians, that candor is refreshing, and it'll take him a long way."
The governor spent much of last week answering questions about an error made in the state's application for federal Race to the Top education funds, which may have cost the state $400 million.
At a news conference Wednesday, Christie initially took responsibility for the error but soon pivoted to blame the Obama administration. "You're not going to grant the award to New Jersey because of a mistake, a clerical mistake, on one piece of paper? That's the stuff that drives people nuts about government, and that's the stuff the Obama administration should answer for," he said. "Are you guys just down there checking boxes like mindless drones, or are you thinking?"
But by Friday, Christie had fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who apparently provided the governor with inaccurate information regarding the mistake.
"As I have said before, I never promised the people of New Jersey that this would be a mistake-free administration," Christie said in a written statement. "However, I did promise that the people serving in my administration would be held accountable for their actions. As I said on Wednesday, I am accountable for what occurs in my administration. I regret this mistake was made and will do all I can to have my administration avoid them in the future."
Still, the Race to the Top episode is not likely to dampen other Republicans' desire to be associated with Christie.
"He's the one Republican governor the eyes of the nation are on, watching this experiment in terms of the cutbacks, retrenchments in state government," said Terry Madonna, a political analyst and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College.
To date, the governor's office has been coy about the extent to which Christie will be hitting the campaign trail this fall. Spokesman Michael Drewniak said the governor's schedule was being firmed up, noting that he had received many requests from around the country and would travel "to assist in a number of gubernatorial and congressional campaigns."
Among the Republican gubernatorial candidates who have sought Christie's counsel, Drewniak said, are Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Meg Whitman in California, Bill Brady in Illinois, Chris Dudley in Oregon, Robert Ehrlich in Maryland, and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. John Robitaille, a Republican candidate for governor in Rhode Island, named Christie his dream endorsement.
Closer to home, Christie was set to host a fund-raiser Friday night for Jon Runyan, a South Jersey Republican who is seeking to replace freshman U.S. Rep. John Adler. Admission to the fund-raiser was $500, and the price of taking a picture with the governor was $2,400. Christie went to Runyan's headquarters on primary night and will stump for the former Eagles offensive lineman in Ocean County during Labor Day weekend.
Chris Russell, a spokesman for the Runyan campaign, said Christie, a dynamic speaker, was a tremendous asset to the campaign.
"We couldn't have a better person to have Jon stand next to," Russell said. "The governor is tremendous."
When asked by Jake Tapper on ABC's This Week what lesson others should learn from his victory in November, Christie said Republicans needed to get back to the Republican brand - "less government, lower taxes, less spending, and commonsense regulation that grows private-sector jobs."
"I think if my win tells anything," he said, it is that "if we get back to the basics as Republicans, then we speak to some of the concerns people have in New Jersey and across the country."