NEW YORK (Reuters) - Governor Chris Christie’s success in forcing New Jersey public sector workers to pay more for their benefits will burnish his image nationally among Republicans already wooing him for national office, analysts said on Friday.
Although the first-term governor has repeatedly ruled out a run in the 2012 presidential elections, many Republicans see him as a more promising contender than the current crop of declared candidates.
Even some states where Republicans are dominant have not been able to achieve Christie’s feat of overcoming fierce public sector union resistance to get legislation raising the retirement age and increasing public sector employee pension contributions.
The victory is all the more remarkable because the labor movement is stronger in New Jersey than in Midwest states that have passed similar legislation, and opposition Democrats control both houses of the New Jersey legislature.
In Ohio and Wisconsin, Republicans control governorships and legislatures so they were able to push through measures to strip public sector unions of some bargaining rights over wages as well as higher benefit contributions.
New Jersey has more public sector workers than either of those states and a higher percentage of its public workers are unionized than the Midwest states, according to an analysis by RBC Capital Markets.
“If he were to run nationally he has a heck of a platform to run on,” said Mickey Blum, Director of Baruch College Survey Research.
“He’s the tough guy that says all these things that Republicans want to hear, but he’s also making them happen in the state. He’s getting pretty tough, sweeping legislation through, and he’s getting at least some Democrats in the legislature to go along with him.”
Kellyanne Conway, the president of The Polling Company and a Republican strategist, said a possible scenario might be Christie picked to be the Republican presidential nominee’s running mate.
“Some folks dismiss him as a rabble-rouser but the fact is he’s more aptly described as a promise-keeper -- that’s something voters like,” she said.
“He would be someone who electrifies the Republican electorate and attracts independent-minded voters,” she said, adding that he has the attributes of “straight talk, the simple solutions toward complicated challenges, authenticity and accessibility” that voters tend to like.
Christie’s growing national presence comes even as his own constituents are showing increasing dissatisfaction with his leadership. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this week showed his approval ratings falling to a new low of 44 percent, with 47 percent saying they disapprove of his work.
Conway said those numbers are not as bad as they could be and in any case are not so important in a national context.
But Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist, said Christie would lose much of his appeal as a potential vice-presidential candidate if he cannot be relied upon to carry his home state.
“If his poll numbers were better, he would be more helpful to Republicans,” he said. “Maybe he brings us New Jersey but beyond that he doesn’t bring much. He is not sufficiently electrifying in and of himself.”
It’s unclear how Christie’s brash style would play on the national stage. On one occasion, he told a voter to “mind your own business” after she quizzed him on whether his children went to public or private school.
“He can sometimes seem to have a short fuse,” said Blum, “especially anger focused at ordinary voters who ask you a question -- that can turn people off.”
But Conway thinks his no-nonsense manner might be what many voters are looking for.
“I think this country is ready for an everyman with more populist appeal, someone who’s not Ivy League-educated, non-patrician,” she said.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune