To a greater degree than with just about any other contemporary politician, it's never been so much about what Chris Christie says as how he says it.
The New Jersey governor's rapid ascent to the upper echelon of American public life was built largely on his forceful -- and often intentionally provocative -- personality.
In carefully cultivating his image as the antidote to bland, poll-tested politicians who have turned off so many voters, Christie has always sought confrontation rather than shrunk from it.
His bravado-saturated “YouTube moments” have turned off some voters, but the Republican’s convincing triumph in a blue state last November demonstrated clearly that many more people -- in his home state, at least -- are receptive to his Jersey tough-guy shtick.
Since the outbreak of the Bridgegate scandal, however, that trademark swagger has been in short supply.During last week’s marathon press conference, Christie visibly choked back his emotions, repeatedly reiterating the “sadness” he felt over revelations that an aide and two appointees were responsible for traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge in an act of apparent political retribution. Christie informed anyone watching that they were looking at a “sad guy standing here today."
In stark contrast to the finger-wagging bombast for which he is known, Christie slouched at the podium, as if to emphasize the extent of his contrition.
And in his State of the State speech earlier this week, the robust confidence and snappy one-liners from previous years’ addresses was gone entirely. Instead, the Garden State Republican offered up a mostly flavorless defense of his administration’s record and a laundry list of generally noncontroversial proposals for his second term.
These efforts to strike a humble note, at a time when the “bully” label has threatened to sink him, seemed to be by design. But this shift in tenor raises the question: Does a kinder, gentler Chris Christie risk losing everything that was appealing about him in the first place?
The answer appears to be that this toned-down version is a temporary aberration, not one built to last.
Though they declined to speak on the record, sources close to Christie emphasized that the governor’s milder approach would not necessarily carry over to future appearances, even as investigations into the scandal continue to dominate the discourse in Trenton.
Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who was a senior aide in both of Mitt Romney’s presidential runs, echoed other national GOP opinion-shapers in arguing that it would be a mistake for Christie to veer from the strong personality and unconventional approach that first got him onto the national radar.
“Christie should still be Christie,” Madden said. “I believe it has less to do with changing his style entirely and more to do with picking his spots or his battles wisely. There will be times where his no-nonsense, confrontational approach will still fit perfectly with an electorate that is tired of the status quo and tired of what Christie himself called ‘the blow-dried approach’ of today's conventional politicians.”
This weekend, Christie is slated to keep a low public profile during a swing through Florida, where he will help Gov. Rick Scott raise money, meeting with wealthy donors at a private party being thrown by Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.
But Christie will take center stage on Tuesday at his second-term swearing-in ceremony in Trenton -- an event that will be closely watched for the tone he takes in front of the cameras as the formal inquiries into Bridgegate begin to take shape.
So far, polls have offered mixed reviews for how the still-unfolding episode has affected the governor’s national standing. While an NBC News/Marist poll released on Wednesday showed that 69 percent of American adults said the scandal has not changed their opinion of him, 18 percent said that it made them like Christie less, while only 5 percent said that it made them like him more.
That 18 percent number seems more daunting when considering the context of Christie’s likely 2016 presidential run, in which his margin of error in a multi-candidate GOP field will be small.
But as he gears up for the next stage in his political life, there is ample reason to believe that a newly minted “Chris Christie 2.0” won’t replace the original version on the campaign trail.
Dante Scala, a New Jersey native and professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, explained a key reason why this is so: “As others have pointed out, Christie's combativeness is supposed to compensate for his moderation on certain issues important to the Republican primary electorate. If his assertiveness gave way to humble bipartisanship on the campaign trail, he becomes the Northeastern Republican version of Jon Huntsman '12. And the trajectory for that type of candidate is at best flat, even in New Hampshire.”
Indeed, Christie’s reputation as an authentic, straight shooter is so central to his overall appeal in the media and among the general public, that if he were to lose that edge, all bets could be off.
And nowhere is that reality clearer than in the first-in-the-nation primary state, which likely will be a must-win contest for the Northeastern governor, if he hopes to become the Republican nominee.
“New Hampshire voters would find appeal in the candor and boisterous demeanor Governor Christie has had during his first term,” said Granite State Republican strategist Rich Killion. “His challenge would be any new information that comes forth which challenges his brand and the accountable [Bridgegate] narrative he planted in the ground that day.”
Despite his recent, uncharacteristically demure public persona, Christie is already showing signs of rediscovering his combativeness.
At the tail end of an appearance Thursday in Manahawkin -- a town on the Jersey shore that was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy -- he stared out at the crowd with a particularly intense gaze.
What came next more closely mirrored vintage Christie than the version that had been on display the previous week-and-a-half.
“I was born here, I was raised here, I’m raising my family here, and this is where I intend to spend the rest of my life,” he said with conviction. “And whatever test they put in front of me, I will meet those tests because I’m doing it on your behalf.”
The governor’s press aides wasted little time in uploading the clip to YouTube and blasting it out to reporters.