Is Christie conservative enough for Tea Party?

Fri Sep 30, 2011 5:41pm EDT

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By Mark Egan, Edith Honan and Steve Holland

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Is tough-talking Republican Chris Christie tough enough for the Tea Party?

Christie's potential entry into a 2012 White House race dominated by conservatives would electrify the campaign but trigger scrutiny of his record as a Republican governor in heavily Democratic New Jersey.

Hailed by conservatives for staring down public employee unions in New Jersey, he may face questions about whether his beliefs on such hot-button issues as illegal immigration and climate change match up with the conservative Tea Party movement expected to play an important role in choosing the Republican nominee.

"I think there is an interesting possibility that the more people look at him, the more people will have concerns," said Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Tea Party in Iowa, a key early voting state.

"A lot of people see everybody as Superman until they get in the race, and all of a sudden they are just Clark Kent," Rhodes said.

After ruling out a presidential run for months, Christie is now said to be wavering under pressure from Republican donors unhappy with the current field. The New York Post said he might announce his candidacy as early as Monday.

A leap into the Republican field would require him to move quickly to form a campaign organization to compete in early voting states. The first nominating contest, the Iowa caucuses, could take place in early January.

Christie's relatively liberal record on some issues might hold him back from winning support from conservatives who have so far backed Texas Governor Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

In 2008, as U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Christie said that being in the United States without documentation was not a crime, upsetting conservatives.

While running for governor, he told Fox News he supported common-sense gun control laws. In August, he said that "climate change is real" and "it's time to defer to the experts."

NOT IDEOLOGICAL CONSERVATIVE

"I think Chris Christie is a pragmatic politician. I don't think he's an ideological conservative," said Steve Lonegan, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, who lost to Christie in the state's Republican primary for governor.

A rising star in the Republican Party since becoming governor of the Northeast state in January 2010, Christie has a fiscal record that will appeal to Republicans and independents concerned about government spending and the $1.3 trillion U.S. deficit.

Christie made national headlines in 2010 when he closed an $11 billion deficit on a $29 billion budget by slashing funding across the board including for education and local aid, while capping property tax hikes.

His decision to cancel an $8.7 billion commuter rail tunnel project under the Hudson River, his tough stance against the state teachers' union in demanding reforms and an overhaul of the benefits system for state workers have all won him praise from fiscal conservatives.

Gruff, funny and a charismatic public speaker, he also has a reputation for getting things done even if he has to ruffle feathers in the process.

Whether the appeal of his blunt manner would spread beyond New Jersey is a question for him.

"We know Christie's confrontational. The question is whether the New Jersey style plays nationally," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

COMPLAINTS AT HOME

Christie's strong popularity in New Jersey slumped this spring as the state headed into a tough round of budget negotiations, but it has rebounded. A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll this week said more than half of voters in the state approved of Christie's performance.

Conservative New Jersey Republicans have many complaints about him. They point to his decision to subsidize two development projects -- the Xanadu leisure complex and an Atlantic City casino -- as examples of the state propping up projects in defiance of free market principles.

Critics also point to his liberal appointments, in particular of Paula Dow as state attorney general. Dow declined to join other states in a lawsuit challenging President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul, which conservatives want to repeal.

Christie was dealt an embarrassing blow last year when the state lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education grants after his education commissioner bungled a question during an interview with U.S. officials.

The commissioner was quickly fired.

Lonegan and other conservatives say Christie has not pushed through tax reform in the state, which has among the highest tax rates in the country.

Despite such issues, Christie is capable of emerging as a strong competitor in a Republican field seen as weak.

"Christie's challenge is to raise the money, build a strong leadership team in the five early states, and carry a conservative message to the country," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "He has the ability to do all three."

His weight may also be a factor, especially were he to win the nomination, setting up televised debates juxtaposing an estimated 300-pound (136-kg) man against Obama, a slender man who plays basketball to maintain his fitness.

In late July, Christie was hospitalized after an asthma attack so bad he had trouble breathing after taking his inhaler. Leaving the hospital, Christie said: "If I weighed less I'd be healthier. I've been taking it seriously. It's one of the major struggles of my life. I'm working on it."

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