Christie returns to the national spotlight

Hopes to regain support after losing ground among conservative right

OXON HILL, Md. — In a return to the national political stage, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey sought Thursday to both ingratiate himself with conservative activists and press them to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party, warning that “we’ve got to start to talk about what we are for and not what we are against.”

Christie, long a proponent of pragmatism over ideology, told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference here that “we don’t get to govern if we don’t win.”

“Please, let’s come out of here not only resolved to stand for our principles, but let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again,” he said.

But while Christie delivered subtle advice to his party, he did not use the closely watched speech to offer a challenge to its conservative wing, as he had in the past. Instead, he seemed to take a more cautious approach that acknowledged the wariness of conservatives toward a governor from the Democratic-dominated Northeast, as well as his own political vulnerability amid a bruising scandal over his administration’s role in the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.

Christie devoted much of the speech to reinforcing traditional conservative messages, frequently sounding as much like a conventional Republican looking to endear himself to his party’s base as he did a blunt conveyor of uncomfortable truths, his familiar and favored role in American politics.

The crowd responded warmly, interrupting Christie about a half-dozen times with applause and giving him a standing ovation, an achievement unto itself for Christie, who was snubbed by the conference last year.

The organization then denied him a speaking slot after he publicly, and effusively, praised President Barack Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy just days before Election Day.

On Thursday, he referred repeatedly to his anti-abortion positions. He railed against the news media, saying it had misrepresented the Republican Party.

He defended the billionaire Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, against attacks from Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader. And he mocked Obama’s leadership style.

Christie recalled the president’s decision to maintain his distance in deficit reduction talks in Congress.

“Man, that’s leadership, isn’t it?” he asked. “If that’s your attitude, Mr. President, what the hell are we paying you for?”

Christie’s tone Thursday may have reflected his current standing within the national Republican electorate. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 31 percent of Republicans want Christie to run for president, compared with 41 percent who do not.

But his mere presence at the conference showed his resolve to maintain the kind of strong national profile required to run for president.

The annual gathering of conservative activists here has long created a conundrum for the Republican Party and its leaders, simultaneously serving as a pep rally for its right wing, an influential bloc of voters in primaries, and representing a political liability for its image with a broader, more moderate electorate. (It was here that Mitt Romney, straining to win over skeptical conservatives, described himself as “severely conservative.”)

This year, organizers seemed determined to put a less strident face on the convention and the party. They stacked its opening day with Republican leaders, like Christie and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice-presidential nominee, who have pushed the party to reach out to minority voters and welcome dissent within its ranks.

“A majority party welcomes debate, brings people in,” Ryan said here Thursday. “It doesn’t burn heretics, it wins converts.”

But that gentler message was occasionally clouded by speakers who went on the attack, eviscerating Obama, his health care overhaul, foreign policy and oversight of the Internal Revenue Service. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a rising star in the conservative world, offered up the day’s most searing attack.

“If you have a president who is picking and choosing which laws to follow and which laws to ignore, you no longer have a president,” Cruz said.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, took the stage wielding a rifle and quipped that Obama was “treating our Constitution worse than a place mat at Denny’s.”