Returning to the national stage for the first time since scandal erupted in his home state, a determined New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday that Republicans must “take on” the media directly as they work to improve the party’s image ahead of the midterm elections.
The Republican governor ignored his administration’s recent troubles, but he showed flashes of the fighting spirit that has defined his political career in a speech to conservative activists gathered in suburban Washington, earning a standing ovation after a 15-minute speech in which he declared, “We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for.”
“The fact is, we’ve got to take these guys on directly,” Christie said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a three-day event in suburban Washington that has attracted thousands of conservative activists and opinion leaders and a host of prospective Republican presidential candidates.
He later called on party leaders and tea party leaders alike to “start talking about what we’re for and not what we’re against.”
It was not among the most aggressive speeches in a political career marked by blunt criticism of Republicans and Democrats alike. But the brief address was a sharp break in several weeks of relative silence from an ambitious governor who has avoided the national spotlight since a political retribution scandal erupted in January.
Christie’s remarks come as dual investigations in New Jersey threaten to drag on for months. Authorities are looking into twin scandals — an alleged plot to manufacture traffic jams as political retribution by Christie loyalists and alleged threats by two members of his Cabinet to hold up a riverfront city’s storm recovery funds unless its mayor approved a favored redevelopment project.
Christie was among several potential presidential candidates scheduled to address the three-day conservative conference. Thursday’s speaking program also included Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Christie, who leads the Republican Governors Association, contrasted dysfunction in Washington against accomplishments by governors facing re-election tests this fall in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Florida. And he suggested that conservatives consider electability as they decide which candidates to support in the months leading up to the midterms.
“Please, let us come out of here resolved not only to stand for our principles, but let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again,” he said.
Conservatives have been reluctant to embrace Christie, who wasn’t invited to last year’s gathering in part because of lingering resentment over his embrace of President Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast in the heat of the last presidential contest.
Virginia-based conservative activist John Bloom held a sign outside the conference ballroom calling on attendees to walk out of the speech, referring to Christie as “Gov. Traffic Jam.”
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Thursday found that three in 10 Republicans would not support a Christie White House bid. But he earned a largely positive response on Thursday.
American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas suggested that conservatives might be warming up to Christie because of the perception that Democrats and the media is “ganging up on him unfairly.”
“Most conservatives, whether Chris Christie is their favorite candidate or not, frankly feel compelled to reject those who are going after him for political motives,” Cardenas said. “Chris Christie has a wonderful opportunity to make the case to the activists who are here. But It’s really all on his shoulders. All we’re providing with him is a podium.”