After Obama, Christie Wants a G.O.P. Hug
A few days after Hurricane Sandy shattered the shores of New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie picked up the phone to take on a different kind of recovery work: taming the Republican Party fury over his effusive embrace of President Obama.
On Nov. 3, Mr. Christie called Rupert Murdoch, the influential News Corporation chief and would-be kingmaker, who had warned in a biting post on Twitter that the governor might be responsible for Mr. Obama’s re-election.
Mr. Christie told Mr. Murdoch that amid the devastation, New Jersey needed friends, no matter their political party, according to people briefed on the discussion. But Mr. Murdoch was blunt: Mr. Christie risked looking like a spoiler unless he publicly affirmed his support for Mitt Romney, something the governor did the next day.
Mr. Christie has been explaining himself to Republicans ever since. His lavish praise for Mr. Obama’s response to the storm, delivered in the last days of the presidential race, represented the most dramatic development in the campaign’s final stretch. Right or wrong, conventional wisdom in the party holds that it influenced the outcome.
But behind the scenes, the intensity of the reaction from those in Mr. Christie’s party caught him by surprise, interviews show, requiring a rising Republican star to try to contain a tempest that left him feeling deeply misunderstood and wounded.
The governor, who had spent days delivering bear hugs and words of sympathy to shellshocked residents, resented the pressure to choose between the state he loves with fervent, Springsteen-fueled ferocity and his future as a leader in the Republican Party.
In New Jersey, Mr. Christie’s politics-be-damned approach to the storm seemed to represent a moment of high-minded crisis management for a governor frequently defined by his public diatribes and tantrums. Mr. Christie locked arms with Mr. Obama, flew with him on Marine One, talked with him daily and went out of his way to praise him publicly as “outstanding,” “incredibly supportive” and worthy of “great credit.”
But in the days after the storm, Mr. Christie and his advisers were startled to hear from out-of-state donors to Mr. Romney, who had little interest in the hurricane and viewed him solely as a campaign surrogate, demanding to know why he had stood so close to the president on a tarmac. One of them questioned why he had boarded Mr. Obama’s helicopter, according to people briefed on the conversations.
It did not help that Mr. Romney had not called Mr. Christie during those first few days, people close to the governor say.
The tensions followed Mr. Christie to the annual meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Las Vegas last week. At a gathering where he had expected to be celebrated, Mr. Christie was repeatedly reminded of how deeply he had offended fellow Republicans.
“I will not apologize for doing my job,” he emphatically told one of them in a hotel hallway at the ornate Wynn Resort.
His willingness to work closely with the president has cast a shadow over Mr. Christie’s prospects as a national candidate, prompting a number of Republicans to wonder aloud whether he is a reliable party leader.
“It hurt him a lot,” said Douglas E. Gross, a longtime Republican operative in Iowa who has overseen several presidential campaigns in the state. “The presumption is that Republicans can’t count on him.”
Republican voters in Iowa, the first state to select presidential candidates, “don’t forget things like this,” Mr. Gross said.
With Mr. Romney’s loss still an open sore, Mr. Christie’s conduct remains a topic of widespread discussion in the party.
“People keep asking me why you were so nice to the president,” Governor-elect Pat McCrory of North Carolina told Mr. Christie when they encountered each other beneath a gem-studded chandelier at the hotel.
“I tell them you are doing your job,” Mr. McCrory said.
“That’s right,” Mr. Christie replied, patting him on the back.
Inside the Romney campaign, there is little doubt that Mr. Christie’s expressions of admiration for the president, coupled with ubiquitous news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, raised Mr. Obama’s standing at a crucial moment.
During a lengthy autopsy of their campaign, Mr. Romney’s political advisers pored over data showing that an unusually large number of voters who remained undecided until the end of the campaign backed Mr. Obama. Many of them cited the storm as a major factor in their decision, according to a person involved in the discussion.
“Christie,” a Romney adviser said, “allowed Obama to be president, not a politician.”
In a sign of residual frustration, a banner headline popped up on Sunday on a Romney-friendly Web site, The Drudge Report, going after Mr. Christie for appearing on “Saturday Night Live” this past weekend “as residents suffer.”
Mr. Christie is, of course, a convenient scapegoat for a candidacy that fell short for many reasons — demographic, ideological and personal — and Mr. Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, emphasized that Mr. Christie did “exactly what a governor should do” in a crisis.
Still, a bitterness lingers among top financial donors to Mr. Romney, many of whom had considered Mr. Christie a powerful ally — a blustery and emotional figure on the campaign trail who compensated for Mr. Romney’s mechanical and staid presence.
A top Romney aide described the contributors as “furious” with Mr. Christie.
In interviews, several of the donors speculated that Mr. Christie was positioning himself as a softer, postpartisan figure in time for his re-election as governor next year, when he may face the popular Democratic mayor of Newark, Cory A. Booker, or in preparation for the 2016 presidential campaign.
The chatter captures the unusual position Mr. Christie occupies among the Republican faithful. A political celebrity with the image of a regular guy, he pleased the base with his tart-tongued denunciations of Mr. Obama, whom he memorably described as “walking around in a dark room trying to find the light switch of leadership.”
But some party loyalists saw his behavior after the hurricane as an echo of his convention keynote address in August, when he trumpeted his own accomplishments but made scant reference to Mr. Romney.
“A lot of politicians look out for themselves,” said Mr. Gross, the Republican from Iowa. “They just usually camouflage it better.”
That argument is rejected by no less a Republican Party booster than Kenneth G. Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, who told Mr. Christie to ignore carping party activists who he predicted would soon plead with him to seek higher office.
“I said, ‘Governor, if you lead a miraculous recovery of the state of New Jersey, that is all that is going to matter,’ ” Mr. Langone recalled. “They are going to be begging you to run, just like they begged Eisenhower.”
No poll of New Jersey public opinion has been released since the storm. But Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, predicts that Mr. Christie’s approval ratings, recently in the low 50s, will surge.
“It was obvious to many people in New Jersey that he was putting his state ahead of his party,” Mr. Murray said. “You always get points for leadership when you do that.”
After the storm, when Mr. Christie walked into a restaurant in liberal-leaning Princeton, he received a loud ovation.
His reception was chillier in Las Vegas, where Republican governors, past and present, offered a range of explanations for Mr. Christie’s warmth toward the president. They know from experience that nothing can kill a political career like a botched response to a disaster.
But most analyses fell into the exasperated Christie-Can’t-Help-It category.
“People here understand Chris Christie’s effusive personality,” said Haley Barbour, a former governor of Mississippi.
And Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa said: “There are some people that think maybe he could have handled it — been a little less gushing. But that’s his personality. He has got that New Jersey edge to him, you know, for good or bad.”