NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is a rising star of the Republican Party seen as having a shot at a White House run, raising questions whether his obesity could impede his chances.
American views on overweight candidates may help determine the political future of Christie, an alternative to fit fellow-Republican Sarah Palin. While Americans like female candidates slim, they seem to better tolerate their male politicians on the heavy side.
Christie rose to prominence on the national scene after his 2009 election when he closed an $11 billion deficit on a $29 billion budget while putting a cap on property tax increases.
Now a recent Zogby poll of hypothetical Republican candidates showed him first in the field, ahead of Palin, and the only Republican beating President Barack Obama.
Although Bill Clinton was teased for being overweight, America has not had a truly obese president since William Howard Taft a century ago.
"Image does matter. ... That is something that is in the voters' subconscious whether they want to admit it or not," said Patrick Murray, director of New Jersey's Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Political analysts are hesitant to suggest weight will harm Christie's political future.
"Are you looking for somebody who can run a marathon or somebody who can run a state?" said Republican strategist Rich Galen.
But research has found bias against the overweight has risen steadily in recent years. Some 42.5 percent of severely obese people report bias, according to the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States.
Stereotypes persist that fat people are lazy, unintelligent and unsuccessful. The bias is even worse for women.
"You would think that attitudes might improve as obesity rates increase but we're finding the exact opposite," said Rebecca Puhl, a Yale University researcher.
More than one-third of American adults are obese, a rate that doubled from 1980 to 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is defined as having a "body mass index" of 30 or higher, with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 considered healthy.
THE POLITICS OF FAT
Christie, 48, is a very large man, and not because of his height of 5-foot-11. He has publicly acknowledged struggling with his weight while also joking about it. He told radio host Don Imus in mock exaggeration that he weighed 550 pounds (250 kg).
Christie's spokesman declined to comment.
One political image consultant praised Christie for his tailored suits and neatness, saying being overweight is not necessarily a drawback for politicians.
"As long as they are clean and well groomed, people will look beyond their physical appearance," said Maurice Bonamigo.
Beth Miller and Jennifer Lundgren of the University of Missouri-Kansas City found a distinct weight bias against obese female candidates but a larger body size may help men.
"I was really surprised by our findings. We know when men are larger and in particular when they have a larger muscle mass that's viewed as positive, and so we kind of wonder if we were finding a reflection of that more so than liking the men more because they looked obese," Lundgren said.
Regardless of Christie's size, Republicans invited him to campaign for candidates across the country ahead of the November elections when the party seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats.
With Christie's popularity came White House speculation, although he denies he will seek the 2012 nomination.
That does not rule him out as a vice-presidential candidate. Any nominee might see New Jersey -- often a Democratic state -- as crucial to a Republican victory.
MSNBC television host Chris Matthews questioned whether Christie's heft will hold him back.
"Chris Christie is 'Moon over New Jersey,'" Matthews told a gathering in Washington.
"He just doesn't seem credible as a guy who's going to be disciplined," he said.
New Jersey voters certainly notice that Christie is overweight.
The Monmouth University Polling Institute created a "word cloud" during the 2009 campaign when it asked voters to describe him; "fat" came between "honest" and "conservative."
"Christie played it very well, with a combination of his pugnaciousness and humor. That often works quite well on personal types of attacks," said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in New Jersey.
Referring to Christie's size may have backfired on former Governor Jon Corzine, whose 2009 campaign ads showed unflattering images of Christie and accused him of "throwing his weight around."
"That was seen as a desperation move in New Jersey," Galen said. "The fact is that Corzine tried an ad hominem attack against Governor Christie and Corzine is now a private citizen and Christie is now governor of the state."