When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie responded to a broadside from Rand Paul with a rant about 9-11 victims, it was easy to see similarities between the New Jersey Republican and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuilani. As The Atlantic Wire noted yesterday morning, they’re both tough-talkers, former prosecutors, and moderates from the New York area. They also, apparently, like talking about 9-11. But despite those superficial similarities, it wouldn’t be wise to compare Giuliani and Christie. They start in opposite positions and their presidential contests might end very differently, too.
Rudy Giuliani started out as the leader in polls for the Republican nomination in 2008. He didn’t just have a small lead, either, like maybe Rand Paul has today. Giuilani was trading in the mid-thirties, about the same number as the “inevitable” Hillary Clinton. There were surveys showing him with more than 40 percent of the vote. In August 2007, a whopping 84 percent of Republicans had a favorable impression of Giuliani. Romney skated by with favorability ratings in the mid-fifties.
But even then, respectable political analysts recognized that Giulini had huge weaknesses. Giuliani’s positions on gay marriage and abortion were prohibitively liberal for a full wing of the party. Realistically, abortion is and was a litmus test for today’s Republicans. Giluiani only had the narrowest route to victory. The establishment knew it: He didn’t get very many endorsements outside of the northeast. Worse still, Giuliani’s route to victory was complicated by Romney, another Northeastern with convenient ties to New Hampshire and Michigan, and John McCain, another relative moderate with better conservative credentials and his own history in New Hampshire and Michigan.
Chris Christie is in exactly the opposite position. Republicans start out skeptical of his candidacy. He’s at 47 favorable, 30 unfavorable—worse than Romney ever had. That’s presumably because he’s perceived as a pro-Obama, blue state moderate. But unlike Giuliani, he's actually conservative enough to win the nomination.
Christie checks the crucial boxes of the religious and business wings of the Republican Party. He’s pro-life and he’s against gay marriage. He has solid credentials opposing taxes and attacking unions, which will eventually compliment a reformist, conservative domestic policy agenda. His great acts of moderation are on immigration, where many of the contenders are on the sage page, or on guns, which isn’t anything close to a litmus test—especially in the states Christie is counting on. Maybe Medicaid expansion will be a big issue, but history suggests that Republicans are willing to nominate candidates with deficient conservative credentials, so long as they don’t violate a few sacred rules about abortion and taxes.
It’s surprisingly easy to envision Christie winning the nomination. His conservative credentials are pretty good, so now all he needs to do is get Republicans to remember. That shouldn’t be hard for Christie. His charisma and brass-style will make him an excellent Obama-, union-, and liberal-basher once he wins reelection. It’s easy to envision him cleaning up the debates, like Newt Gingrich before South Carolina. It’s worth recalling that he was once a Tea Party favorite for exactly this reason. Unlike 2008, when Giuliani’s northeastern starting point was interrupted by Romney and McCain, there’s not another northeastern, maverick-y candidate to prevent Christie from doing well in a state like New Hampshire, Michigan, or Florida. If Jeb Bush doesn’t run, there isn’t another candidate better positioned to start locking down endorsements and donors. Electability will help, too.
Perhaps the biggest danger for Christie is discipline. He could easily start bashing his conservative opponents instead of president, just like Jon Huntsman. But if Christie sticks to the Obama-bashing game plan, he could easily be the nominee, even if it’s hardly assured. And in this most critical respect, he’s no Giuliani.