N.J. Gov. Christie Takes On Taboo Topics With Gusto

With straight talk, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has taken the GOP by storm since his election in 2009. He came in third in a recent conservative presidential straw poll even though he had not attended the conference. The governor insists he's not interested in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey insists he is not running for president, despite calls by some prominent conservatives that he should. After a year in office he's built a reputation as a straight-talking politician who has slashed spending. Yesterday, Christie was in Washington and getting a lot of attention.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Not every politician gets an introduction that name-checks "The Sopranos" and Snooki, but so it goes for Governor Chris Christie, who's become the latest outsized New Jersey personality to capture the eye of the rest of the country.

(Soundbite of applause)

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (Republican, New Jersey): Thank you.

GONYEA: The governor got a big welcome yesterday at the conservative Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Christie is a large, imposing figure as he stands behind the lectern. He says tough choices had to be made as soon as he took office when he had to deal with an immediate $2 billion-plus budget deficit.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Every department of state government was cut, and we balanced the budget without any new or increased taxes on the people of the state of New Jersey.

GONYEA: That got Christie praise from conservatives nationally, along with his pledge to take on public employee unions, including police and firefighters, and to confront the teachers union. And there was that proposed new rail tunnel from New Jersey into Manhattan that Christie killed.

At AEI yesterday, Christie said he wants President Obama to succeed, but he also was critical of Mr. Obama's push for things like high-speed rail and Internet - and electric cars.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Let me guarantee you something: If we don't fix the real big things, there are going to be no electric cars on the road, going to be no high-speed Internet access, or if there is, you're not going to be able to afford to get on it. We're not going to be able to care about the niceties of life, the investments that Washington wants to continue to make. That's not what we need to be talking about.

GONYEA: And to underscore his willingness to take on taboo topics, Christie said the Social Security retirement age needs to be raised.

Mr. CHRISTIE: Oh-ho, I just said it, and I'm still standing here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHRISTIE: I did not vaporize into the carpeting and I said it.

GONYEA: Governor Christie has strong critics among Democrats certainly, but also from some within the New Jersey Tea Party movement who thinks he needs to cut spending further. But Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University, notes that so far Christie's approach has served him well. His approval ratings have been going up and are now in the mid-50s.

Professor PATRICK MURRAY (Monmouth University): He knows exactly what the political fallout is going to be of whatever he says or does. But whatever he says, he's not saying it just to get the support of one particular interest group or another. He's saying it simply because he believes it.

GONYEA: Christie, meanwhile, suggests with no humility that Republicans and Democrats would do well to follow his lead. Meanwhile, he looks like he enjoys the attention but does seem a bit tired of telling people he's not running for president in 2012. For now, he's banking instead on his unorthodox approach to governing and his bluntness having an impact in his home state.

Mr. CHRISTIE: And if that's your cup of tea, then come to New Jersey. And if it's not, stay away, because for the next three years at least, that's the way it's going to be. So thanks for hosting me in Washington. I appreciate it very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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