WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When someone dared to ask Chris Christie how Superstorm Sandy would influence next week’s U.S. elections, the New Jersey governor displayed the confrontation-loving, hard-charging style that has made him a rising national figure.
“I don’t give a damn about Election Day,” Christie told a news conference on Tuesday in Ewing, New Jersey, 64 miles southwest of New York City. “Let the politicians who are on the ballot worry about Election Day. It’s not my problem.”
As much as anyone, the physically imposing 50-year-old Christie has become the most prominent political image of the deadly storm, which made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Monday night. Sandy is nearly certain to blaze a path of one kind or another for Christie’s political prospects.
His blunt statements to reporters and on YouTube are familiar to New Jersey residents from his battles with the state’s teachers and his axing of plans for a major new transit tunnel to New York City.
The Republican, who has been governor since January 2010, told reporters on Tuesday he was focused on destroyed homes and potential loss of life, and would turn to the November 6 election logistics later this week.
TV networks ran Christie’s news conference live and also carried interviews with him. His staff posted the interviews to his YouTube channel and fed quotes to his Twitter feed.
Unexpectedly for appearances so close to an election, Christie seized the moment to praise federal emergency officials and President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Late on Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama would meet Christie in New Jersey for a tour of the storm damage on Wednesday, the president’s first since the storm.
While campaigning for Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, Christie has led attacks on the president. In his keynote address to the Republican National Convention in August, he said Obama was undeserving of a second term.
Christie considered running against Obama himself before deciding to sit out the race a year ago. His speech to the Republican convention, while tough on Obama, also drew mixed reviews. Critics said he focused on himself rather than Romney.
“I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance as (we) recover from the storm,” Christie said on Twitter on Tuesday. On NBC’s “Today” show, he called Obama’s support during the storm “outstanding.”
It was not the first time Christie has leaned on Obama during a crisis - he also worked closely with the president when New Jersey faced extensive floods after being hammered by Hurricane Irene last year.
Although clearly not wanting to rock the boat at a time when his state needs the president’s help, Christie is no stranger to bipartisanship, having needed some cross-party support to win election in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
He will need it again assuming he runs for a second term in November 2013 and yet again should he seek the presidency in 2016. Christie had a 56 percent approval rating in New Jersey in a Quinnipiac poll released October 17. Focused on pocketbook issues, he avoids social issues that could alienate moderates.
The storm intensified Christie’s feud with one Democrat, Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford. Christie called Langford a “rogue mayor” for allegedly not backing a state evacuation order.
“I feel badly for the folks in Atlantic City who listened to him and sheltered in Atlantic City,” Christie said on “Today.”
Langford told the same show that Christie was misinformed and that Langford did not encourage residents to stay in the casino city that suffered widespread flooding when Sandy hit.
Relishing the power of a statewide executive, Christie said on Monday that, in view of the raging storm, he was considering rescheduling Halloween by unilateral order. He repeated the idea on Tuesday.
“We want kids to have Halloween, but I also want kids to be safe and alive,” he told the news conference.
With an exhausted look, Christie said he was sick - “which is no fun” - and that he slept only two hours on Monday night. “Every time I fell asleep, someone woke me up,” he said, wearing a dark jacket evocative of the style U.S. politicians call “disaster casual.” It had his name and office printed on it.
Christie did not hide his impatience with coastal residents considering a return home soon. It would be “completely unsafe” and “we are nowhere near being about to let you back,” he said.
The storm seems likely to add to his catalog of viral videos.
In 2011 Christie won praise when he appointed a Muslim lawyer as a judge and then forcefully decried the “ignorance” behind suggestions he would implement Sharia law. “I‘m tired of dealing with the crazies,” Christie said in one such video.
The governor is known for his devotion to rock star Bruce Springsteen, a New Jersey native, despite Springsteen’s liberal politics and active campaigning for Obama.
A lawyer, Christie was an unknown local figure until 2001, when President George W. Bush chose him to be the U.S. attorney - or chief federal prosecutor - for all of New Jersey.
Democrats at times have struggled to answer Christie’s appeal. In 2009 then-Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, ran a TV commercial saying that Christie, who has struggled with weight problems, “threw his weight around” to get out of traffic tickets. The ad failed to stop Corzine’s ouster, and Christie has spoken frankly about his battle with his weight.
Also that year, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives questioned Christie over a contract worth up to $52 million that went to his former boss, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Christie answered questions about the contract at a hearing and before it was over, he stood up and left, saying that he had a train to catch.
Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman