One of the most tantalizing subplots of the 2012 campaign has been the curious and sometimes controversial performances of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Now, campaign insiders tell POLITICO that Christie was Mitt Romney’s first choice for the Republican ticket, lending an intriguing new context to the continuing drama around the Garden State governor.
The strong internal push for Christie, and Romney’s initial instinct to pick him as his running mate, reflects how conflicted the nominee remained about choosing a running mate until the very end of the process. At least on the surface, Christie and Paul Ryan are about as opposite as two Republicans could be: a brash outsider from the Northeast versus a bookish insider from the heartland.
And yet Romney switched from Christie to Ryan in a span of about two weeks, according to a detailed inside account provided to POLITICO.
Romney was so close to picking Christie that some top advisers at the campaign’s Boston headquarters believed the governor had been offered the job. The campaign made tentative plans to announce a pick in late July, just before Romney headed off on his overseas trip, starting with a stop at the London Olympics.
“Mitt liked him because he saw him as a street fighter,” a Romney official said. “It’s the kind of political mentality that Romney doesn’t have, but admires. He wanted someone who could play the Chicago game [like Obama headquarters] on its own terms.”
In fact, Christie was never the final choice. Romney hit “pause” on the possibility shortly before his trip to the Olympics. Then he settled on Ryan the day after returning. Romney formally offered him the job within a week, leaving Christie hanging until shortly before the official announcement a week later.
Some Christie supporters were irritated to discover that the House budget chairman had been picked so long before the New Jersey governor had been told, meaning that he and other also-rans had remained as decoys. These supporters said at the time that Christie deserved more of a heads -up after being led on so strongly.
People involved in the selection process said the campaign believed there was no one who would be more adept and persuasive at delivering Romney’s message. Advisers thought Christie would excel at retail campaigning among working-class voters.
“He’d be great anywhere there are ordinary white men,” the official said. “They would have loved him because here’s this straight-talking, hard-charging, in-your-face guy, and he’s a man’s man. Ohio is the only battleground state where Mitt has a net negative gender gap – where his approval among men doesn’t outweigh the president’s approval among women. Chris Christie changes that.”
Christie started the campaign season by flirting with his own run for president, then ended it with effusive praise for the man he would have run against – and starred in several campaign dramas in between. In typical Christie fashion, there has been nothing understated about his role at each critical point, culminating with his tour with President Barack Obama on Marine One this week as they surveyed Sandy’s havoc along the Jersey Shore.
The New Jersey governor endeared himself to Romney and the Boston team with his early endorsement, right after giving up his own bid. This was early in the primary campaign – October 2011 – and there were seven other candidates in the race. So the endorsement wasn’t easy, and it meant a lot to Romney.
During the long winter slog through the early contests, Christie spoke privately with Romney in long cell phone calls on the road. Romney liked Christie’s fearless advice – unvarnished talk that he wasn’t used to hearing from his cocoon of Boston advisers, many of whom had been with him since he was Massachusetts governor.
Christie was one of the campaign’s most popular surrogates, and he barnstormed with Romney in Iowa, drawing hearty applause for lines like, “Let me tell ya: After three years of Obama, we are hopeless and changeless.”
Some aides around Romney began to sour on Christie when he was late to a couple of events where they were appearing together. “Chris is a sort of cavalier New York, New Jersey guy: ‘If I’m a few minutes behind, I’ll blame it on traffic,'” said a person who knows him well. “That’s just who he is.”
The tardiness rankled the by-the-book folks around Romney. As the vice-presidential selection ramped up, Christie was always at the top of the list, but always with an asterisk.
Some Romney loyalists thought he was too much about himself.
“He wouldn’t make a good Number Two,” one adviser said. That is a point that Christie often made himself, when brushing off talk that he would be chosen.
Advisers also fretted about the raw emotion that makes Christie so popular on TV and on the trail, fearing it might be a liability in the West Wing. In blunt language that Christie can appreciate, another official said: “The explosiveness had some risk.”
Romney was willing to overlook those reservations, and people close to the process describe a frenzy of vetting around Christie in mid-July. Then the intense back-and-forth suddenly halted, although Christie supporters in the campaign’s inner circle remained hopeful that he would still be picked after the foreign trip.
“It could still have happened,” said a person involved in the process.
Instead, the prize went to Ryan, leaving some bitterness in Christie’s camp about how the delicate courting process had ended.
These ruffled feathers got a public airing on the first day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa. With Christie as the convention’s keynote speaker, the front page of the New York Post blared that he had turned Romney down.
“Revealed: the secret reason Chris would not run for VP,” the cover said. The inside article reported that Christie “wasn’t willing to give up the New Jersey statehouse to be Mitt Romney’s running mate because he doubted they’d win.”
Christie fell further from favor in Romney’s inner circle when his convention speech, which campaign officials had approved, dwelled more on the Chris Christie story than on the Mitt Romney story.
“His view was, ‘They saw the speech before I gave it. They vetted it. They said it was fine,'” recalled a Romney adviser. “And the campaign’s view was, ‘We told him that we thought there were more opportunities for him to put in stuff about Mitt, and he didn’t take the hint.’ There was a lot of agitation that led to a lot of sarcasm and the kind of comments that people don’t mean, but they kind of do.”
The differences were papered over. Now, some Romney friends and donors are irked by Christie’s embrace of Obama this week, which one referred to as “over the top.”
“If Romney wins, it won’t be forgotten,” the adviser said. “If Romney loses, it doesn’t matter.”