WASHINGTON – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all but announced himself as the next coming of Ronald Reagan and cast President Obama as Jimmy Carter in a speech Tuesday night that will only inflame speculation that the Republican plans to run for president.
Christie's long-planned speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California in many ways seemed like an audition for a potential candidacy, even though he told a group of donors before the speech that he still does not plan to run.
Asked directly during a question and answer period whether he is reconsidering his past refusals to run, Christie gave a less than convincing denial. He pointed to a video of past statements where he has said he will not run: "Those are the answers," he said.
Minutes later, a woman in the audience rose and gave an impassioned plea for Christie to run: "I really implore you, I really do. This isn't funny. I mean this will all my heart … I really implore you, as a citizen of this country, to please sir, reconsider ... We need you. Your country needs you to run for president."
Christie thanked her: "I hear exactly what you're saying and I feel the passion with which you say it and it touches me."
"But by the same token, that heartfelt message you gave me is also not a reason for me to do it. That reason also has to reside within me," he said. But unlike in the past, Christie did not say he feels in his heart that he is not ready and does not want to run.
"I'm listening to every word of it and feeling it too," he told the woman.
In his speech, Christie didn't just voice obligatory Republican criticisms of Obama. He contrasted himself directly with the incumbent Democrat currently inhabiting the White House, suggesting that his own record as governor has shown him to be more prepared than Obama to carry the mantle of national and international leadership.
As governor, Christie said, he "has not sat by and waited for others to go first to suggest solutions." But Obama, he said, "once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has not found the courage to lead."
"We continue to wait and hope that our president will finally stop being a bystander in the Oval Office. We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things that are obvious to all Americans and to a watching and anxious world community," Christie said.
He castigated Obama's dismissal of a bipartisan deficit commission that "the president asked for himself," and through repetition branded the president a failure. He blamed him for "failure to act on the country's crushing unemployment...the failure to act on ever expanding and rapidly eroding entitlement programs...the failure to discern pork barrel spending from real infrastructure investment."
Christie then summed up his own approach to governance: "When there is a problem, you fix it."
He included a nod to the Democratic leaders in the New Jersey state legislature -- Senate President Stephen Sweeney and House Speaker Sheila Oliver -- describing them as " two people who have more often put the interests of our state above the partisan politics of their caucuses."
"And that's why I call them my friends," he said.
"In New Jersey over the last 20 months, you have actually seen divided government that is working. To be clear, it does not mean that we have no argument or acrimony. I think you all have seen my YouTube videos. There are serious disagreements, sometimes expressed loudly, you know, Jersey style," Christie joked.
The speech came at the end of a day when speculation about Christie's political ambitions had reached a new high, fueled by dissatisfaction among Republican activists with the current presidential field and by slyly placed non-denials and encouragement from unnamed Christie advisers in the press. At one point Tuesday afternoon, Fox News even reported that Christie had officially decided to rule out a run, only to have anonymous Christie advisers tell ABC News that the suggestion was incorrect.
Close Christie confidantes have told The Huffington Post that Christie is not running at present, but has not ruled out the possibility of a run.
It is Christie's blunt manner and his ability to notch several accomplishments in just two years as governor, that has made him a hero to many Republicans. Christie did not fail to mention his wins: two balanced budgets in which he closed $13 billion in deficits without raising taxes, hard fought changes to New Jersey's pension and health benefits system for state employees, and a cap on annual property tax increases.
He linked all of this to foreign relations and diplomacy through Reagan, the nation's 40th president and a conservative icon. Christie used the example of Reagan's decision to fire striking air traffic controllers in 1981 and said that showed to the nation and to foreign adversaries that Reagan was " a man who said what he meant and meant what he said."
Christie also ventured to stake out a general position on the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, aligning with a more reductionist view of the U.S. role in the world.
"The United States must also become more discriminating in what we try to accomplish abroad," he said. "We certainly cannot force others to adopt our principles through coercion. Local realities count; we cannot have forced makeovers of other societies in our image. We need to limit ourselves overseas to what is in our national interest."
Christie ended with another shot at the president, saying Obama spoke in 2004 of unity, but in 2012 is preparing "to divide our nation to achieve re-election. This is not a leadership style, this is a re-election strategy."
And he suggested that the nation needs a leader willing to talk tough with Americans about meeting current challenges, someone like himself: "The biggest challenge we must meet is the one we present to ourselves."