TIME 2016 Election

A Humbled Christie Strikes Low-Key Tone at Conservative Confab

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Md.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Md. Lexey Swall—GRAIN for TIME

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivered an uncharacteristically low-key speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this afternoon, aiming to reconnect with the Republican base amid a traffic scandal that has dented his 2016 ambitions

Humbled by a scandal that has hampered his rise on the national stage, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sought to reconnect with the Republican base on Thursday, delivering an uncharacteristically low-key speech to GOP activists that sounded traditional conservative themes.

“You know I’m shy and retiring, and I don’t like to speak my mind,” Christie joked during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual confab held at a convention center on the banks of the Potomac River outside Washington.

But the reference to his swaggering image seemed to invoke a figure who wasn’t there. Christie’s remarks were neither brusque nor stirring. He courted the crowd by ticking off familiar tropes, reminding skeptical conservatives of his anti-abortion bona fides and his record of taking on public-sector unions and instituting budget reforms. The Garden State governor assailed the media for bias, cast Democrats as “the party of intolerance,” and urged the GOP to define itself as the party of ideas.

“Our ideas are better than their ideas,” Christie told the packed ballroom. “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”

Christie framed himself as a conservative who has secured a governing majority in a reliably blue state. If the GOP can win in New Jersey, he said, it can borrow the blueprint to expand the political map in coming elections.

“Governors are about getting things done,” Christie said, lumping himself in with a passel of conservative executives leading blue and purple states, while distancing himself from Washington lawmakers. “Republican governors in this country have stood up and done things — not just talked about them.”

Christie’s remarks, which lasted about 15 minutes, were a far cry from the all-about-me message he delivered at the 2012 Republican National Convention. His speech Thursday earned a polite reception from the crowd and was punctuated by several rounds of applause. He spoke off the cuff, using notes instead of a teleprompter.

But his very attendance is a sign that the frost between Christie and his party’s base has thawed. Christie addressed the group in 2012 but did not receive an invitation to CPAC last year. The snub came just months after his public embrace of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Many Republicans believed Christie’s effusive praise of the President in the final days of Obama’s re-election campaign helped lift the President over GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Christie spent much of 2013 focused on appealing to his state’s Democrats in order to run up the score of his re-election in preparation for a 2016 presidential campaign.

The reception may have reflected the media onslaught buffeting Christie, who has been under fire in recent months amid revelations that aides initiated a traffic jam in an apparent act of political retribution. The harsh spotlight from a media conservatives see as biased has earned him new affection from the right.

Working a crowd that has not always been friendly to his brand of Northeast conservatism, Christie sought to mend fences. He defended the political activity of the billionaire Koch brothers, whose spending on 2014 races has become a rallying cry for vulnerable Senate Democrats. He urged conservatives to stress an economic platform that can lift Americans out of poverty. And he lambasted Obama for standing on the sidelines when Washington required leadership.

“Mr. President,” he said, “what the hell are we paying you for?”

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