African-Americans embrace Chris Christie in New Jersey

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

Orange, N.J. In his otherwise successful 2009 gubernatorial campaign, Chris Christie didn't exactly triumph in this predominantly African-American township west of Newark.

In fact, he chalked up a grand total of 302 votes here -- good enough for 5.7 percent of the vote against incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.

But if the reaction he received during campaign stops across this urban center on Tuesday is any indication, the Republican governor will do far better this November, bolstering his goal of a massive re-election victory en route to a likely 2016 presidential bid.

Recent polling confirms the enormous strides Christie has made with African-Americans in the Garden State -- Exhibit A when his supporters point to how Republicans can finally attain a foothold with non-white voters in the coming post-Obama era.

Margaret El, an African-American woman in her 60s, was about to sit down for a slice at Pizza Center on Main Street when Christie burst through the doors with a small entourage in tow.

A registered Democrat who voted for President Obama twice, El served as a volunteer on Corzine's 2009 campaign. Now, however, she is a Christie supporter.

"How many Republicans are you going to see walking up and down these streets like this?" she said. "He's approachable. I really like that. And I think the people in Orange are really thrilled, whether they're Democrat or Republican, that he's here."

In brief comments at the pizza joint, Christie told the crowd that it wasn't his first trip to Orange and wouldn't be his last.

He also vowed to help reopen a recently shuttered public library -- a subject of much concern among the dozens of locals who came out to see their charismatic governor on a sunny, early-fall afternoon.

Dwayne Warren, Orange's Democratic mayor, accompanied Christie during his stroll down Main Street and praised the Republican for working with him on a range of local issues that included revitalizing the train station and restoring state funding for a summer food program.

"I made no bones about it," Warren recalled of his initial conversation with Christie after being elected last year. "I called him directly and said, 'We need your help with some support for projects in Orange.' And he was responsive to doing it."

But the response to Christie's arrival in Orange wasn't universally positive. Dozens of protesters from the Communications Workers of America union and volunteers for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono carried signs reading "Christie, Get Out of Orange" and shadowed the governor with chants of "Christie's got to go!"

Despite the organized protests, Christie was in no mood to create one of his famous "YouTube moments" as he greeted the almost uniformly receptive city dwellers he happened upon.

In a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday, Christie leads Buono by the eye-popping margin of 64 percent to 30 percent.

Even more stunning, while just 9 percent of African-American voters cast their ballots for the Republican in 2009, he currently earns 36 percent of the black vote, according to the new poll.

Though the sample size of black voters polled by Quinnipiac was small, Christie has polled at or above 30 percent among African-Americans in several other recent surveys.

To put that standing in recent historical perspective, no Republican presidential, Senate, or gubernatorial candidate in the state Jersey has topped 17 percent of the African-American vote in more than two decades.

If Christie can break that 30-percent threshold in November, it will give him a powerful 2016 talking point with Republicans voters from New Hampshire to Nevada, who will be eager to nominate someone with a wide enough appeal to regain the White House after the GOP's years in the political wilderness.

"One of the things we're most proud of in this campaign is that we're really playing on our opponent's turf," said Christie spokesperson Kevin Roberts. "That has as much to do with the governor's personality as it does with the way he's governed for the last three years. He didn't get into office and ignore inner cities and urban areas."

Roberts cites Christie's work on education reform, mandatory drug treatment for nonviolent offenders, and a concerted effort to build close partnerships with local officials as reasons for the governor's success on this front.

He also offered some succinct advice for other Republican officials serious about expanding their appeal to minorities.

"Look to New Jersey," Roberts said. "It's about showing leadership where people have faith in what you're doing. Even if they don't necessarily agree with you on every issue, they know where you stand. They know you're authentic."

The authenticity factor was in full bloom Tuesday at an earlier event where Christie delivered brief remarks to hundreds of senior citizens gathered inside a hockey rink in West Orange.

It was not technically a campaign speech, and most of the attendees did not come specifically to see the governor. But after he finished speaking, Christie was swarmed by dozens of mostly African-American, mostly female well-wishers.

Over the loud reverberations of a Motown cover band, he greeted seniors for about 20 minutes, making small talk and posing for photos with everyone who wanted one.

He leaned in closely to share words of encouragement, patted shoulders, and even doled out a couple of kisses on the lips, which may or may not have been intended for a cheek.

For the white Republican politician and the black constituents who surrounded him, the scene had the feel of an informal get-together among close friends, as they showered the governor with tight hugs and glowing compliments about his overweight but noticeably slimming frame.

"I'm getting there," Christie told one woman who complimented him for his post-surgery weight loss. "Anyone who says it's easy doesn't know what they're talking about."

Christie may still have an uphill climb in convincing many rank-and-file Republicans who soured on him after his role in last year's presidential election. But in conversations with several of the older women and men who lined up to greet him in West Orange, it was Christie's full-throated embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy that emerged again and again as a key reason for the warm feelings inside the hockey rink.

"That was a big deal for me," recalled Barbara Hill of Newark, who was also in attendance last Sunday when Christie stopped by her Baptist church. "I love him. He's just wonderful."

Viston King, also from Newark and a registered Democrat, said that Christie "did a lot for the people, especially in south Jersey" in Sandy's wake. He added that he would even consider voting for him for president -- on one condition that is not likely to be met.

"I think he'd definitely have to change his party," King said.

The caricature of Christie as a Democrat-in-disguise is one that his opponents on the right have harped on for the past year.

But with a conservative record on fiscal issues, a pro-life stance, and extensive support among Republican elected officials nationwide, Christie remains grounded in the center-right.

It is not so much his ideology that has attracted Democrats here but rather his ability to combine personal charm with a sincere determination not to cede what might have been his Democratic opponent's core supporters.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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