Chris Christie courts the religious right at Faith and Freedom summit

Facing a crowd of right-wing activists who have at times questioned his commitment to their cause, Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., presented himself on Friday as a tried-and-true conservative who still knows how to solve problems and get things done.

It was a dual message that voters can expect to hear frequently if Christie decides to launch a presidential bid in 2016.

The New Jersey governor has had a testy relationship with some elements of the religious right, and he declined an invitation last year to address the Faith and Freedom Coalition. During his speech Friday before the same group, though, he was nothing but complimentary.

"If you are here, you are involved, you care, and you want to be part of the difference," Christie said. "The challenges that we face are big but solvable."

And on issue after issue, he said, he's helped solve problems in deep-blue New Jersey by reaching out to opponents while staying true to his conservative core. Christie did not address the traffic scandal that continues to dog his administration back home.

He balanced the budget and kept taxes low, he said. He increased school choice by green-lighting more charter schools and expanding vouchers - a pet cause of many of the Christian conservatives who attended the gathering.

And he has also campaigned and governed as a strongly "pro-life" executive, he said, despite some resultant discomfort from his political advisers.

"You need to think about this issue," Christie recalled his consultants warning as he was running to be the first New Jersey governor since Roe v. Wade to oppose abortion rights.

"I already have," he replied. "This is my position: I believe that every life is a gift from God that's precious and must be protected."

But even as Christie polished his conservative credentials, he also counseled Republicans to recognize the need to accommodate to their opponents.

"Leadership is also about figuring out a way to get things done," he explained, saying Americans are "tired of a government that is constantly bickering with each other to no end, getting nothing done, allowing our country to drift in stalemate."

Christie said the war on drugs "hasn't worked," stressing the need for criminal justice reform -- a message that could appeal to crossover voters.

"I believe if you're pro-life as I am you need to be pro-life for the whole life," he explained, saying the criminal justice system should mandate treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders.

"What works is giving those people -- nonviolent drug offenders, addicts -- the ability to get the tools they need to deal with their disease," he said. "Violent, sociopath drug dealers deserve to go to prison, but that's not who I'm talking about."

Christie also addressed the violence in Iraq and Syria, where Islamist radicals are on the march, blaming the chaos on American disengagement under President Obama.

"This administration's pulling back of American influence and American ideas around the world is having catastrophic effects in every corner of the globe," he said. " That's not anything more than the failure of the American leader to speak clearly, profoundly, and inspirationally."

In that analysis, Christie was rebutted during an earlier speech by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., another potential 2016 contender who believes America is too meddlesome in the affairs of other countries.

Paul said America's attempts to force peace through war have too often "backfired," pointing to the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Syria as evidence.

Christians fled Iraq for Syria during America's 2003 war in Iraq there because they were afraid of the Shi'ite government that we helped install, Paul said, and now we're arming Islamic militants in Syria "who are killing Christians" and have vowed to target Israel next.

"I say not one more penny" to those who threaten Israel's security, Paul said to thunderous applause.

In his speech, the Kentucky Republican also discussed the government's case against Hobby Lobby, a Christian-owned company that refused to provide health insurance including contraception to its employees. Although the Affordable Care Act requires insurance to cover contraception, Hobby Lobby's owners said it would violate their Christian beliefs to provide that coverage. The government sued the company, and the case is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

"No government should force anyone to choose between their faith and pursuing their livelihood," Paul said, sounding a defense of religious liberty that was also raised on the previous day by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, two other potential 2016 contenders.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., spoke earlier Friday, and he warned that the conservative message of tax cuts and balanced budgets has become "a little stale." He said Republicans should speak to the concerns of blue-collar workers, not just the "corporate board room" or the "country club."

"We're not going to win very many elections if people don't think we care about them, if the average American doesn't think we have an agenda and a message for them," Santorum said. "We need to be the party of the worker, not just the party of business."

A staunch social conservative who posted a strong second-place showing in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, Santorum has said he's considering another run in 2016. In his speech Friday, he touched briefly on the importance of marriage.

Santorum said marriage "helps our country" by strengthening personal economic stability and encouraging commitment. He said the government should encourage as many people as possible to get married.

On Thursday, Santorum attended the March for Marriage in Washington, joining that group in opposing marriage rights for same-sex couples.

  • Jake Miller

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