CHICAGO – Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is walking a political tightrope as he charts his future, trying to balance his re-election campaign in a Democratic-leaning state with a potential presidential bid aimed at winning over Republicans.
His latest challenge: appearing with former President Bill Clinton in Chicago at the risk of alienating religious conservatives being wooed in Washington by other potential GOP presidential candidates.
Christie has pitched himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan leader as he seeks a second term as governor this fall. Participating in the Clinton Global Initiative America's meeting on Friday gives him a chance to appear with the popular ex-president — the event was billed "Cooperation and Collaboration: A Conversation on Leadership" — and to talk about tackling problems like New Jersey's recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
In Washington the same day, evangelical conservatives gathered for Ralph Reed's annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. Republican presidential hopefuls tackled heated issues like abortion and immigration — policy debates that may shape the future of the GOP. Activists attending the conference questioned Christie's priorities.
"He can't spend 10 minutes just to make an appearance?" asked Ginger Howard, a Christian conservative who hosts an Atlanta radio show. "People who neglect us are sorry."
Christie has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to highlight his centrist, above-politics approach. The governor picked up endorsements earlier this week from home-state Democrats and appeared with Obama along the Jersey Shore late last month to tout the region's recovery from a devastating storm. It was Christie's second joint appearance with Obama along the coast, the first coming a week before the 2012 election in a move that caused some conservatives to charge that it undermined Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group created by the influential former Christian Coalition leader, featured appearances from several Republicans thought to be weighing presidential bids. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the opening luncheon, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's running mate last year, and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, among others.
In many cases, they rejected calls for a moderate approach to explosive issues like gay marriage and immigration, insisting that Republicans double down on their conservative ideals as they look to rebuild after President Barack Obama's re-election.
Christie avoided the issues completely by not showing up.
"Chris Christie is dangerously close to sending conservative Republicans a clear message that he doesn't care about their thoughts or views," said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a veteran of presidential politics. "Spending time with Barack Obama is one thing, but when he goes out of his way to spend time with Bill Clinton it begins looking like a pattern of behavior that will alienate Republican voters — and conservatives in particular."
Christie spokesman Colin Reed said the Clinton Global event "presented a platform for Gov. Christie to discuss post-Sandy economic recovery, rebuilding and the kind of bipartisan problem solving that was needed to help New Jersey after its greatest natural disaster."
Christie's political team remains focused on his re-election campaign, setting aside any potential presidential ambitions ahead of the November election. But the appearance alongside Clinton could have benefits.
Clinton carried New Jersey twice and remains popular among Democrats, who comprise about one-third of the state's electorate. Unaffiliated voters in Christie's state account for nearly half the electorate, and Republicans make up the smallest slice, only about 20 percent.
Beyond the immediate political implications, Clinton's appearance with Christie offers parallels to the ex-president's own career. When Clinton launched his presidential campaign in the fall of 1991, his party had suffered three straight presidential defeats and many Democrats openly wondered if they could recapture the White House.
Clinton effectively bridged the divide among liberal Democrats and more business-minded centrists who supported fiscal discipline, welfare reform and tougher responses to crime.
Now Republicans have lost two straight presidential campaigns and the party has gone through an extensive evaluation on how to expand its appeal to women, minorities and young people. In running for re-election, Christie regularly talks about building a new coalition in his home state that appeals to independents and "right-thinking Democrats" as he calls them — a recipe that he could take to the national stage in the 2016 campaign.
"(Christie) has to be bigger than his party," said Al From, the former head of the Democratic Leadership Council and an adviser who was critical to Clinton's success in the early 1990s. "He has to reach out to constituencies that Republicans haven't been able to appeal to."
All of that helps explain why Christie has been so focused on the political center. Even his light-hearted moments are aimed there.
The governor took flak last week for scheduling a special election in October to fill a Senate vacancy created by the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg — even though he stands before voters in November. Democrats contended that a hugely expensive election would be staged mainly to allow Christie to avoid appearing on a ballot with a Democratic senate candidate, probably popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Republicans, meanwhile, thought Christie had missed the opportunity to put a GOP senator in office for 18 months.
Christie taped a humorous segment defending his decision on NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on Wednesday. The show was bumped by a triple-overtime NHL playoff game, but the video, in which Christie "slow-jams" the news, was released Thursday and quickly racked up about 60,000 views on YouTube.
At one point, Fallon intoned, "You ain't lyin', CC. Now look at you, sounding all presidential-like. Do you have something you want to announce on the show right now?"
Christie responded, "C'mon, Jimmy, do you really think I'd come on this show to announce a presidential run?"
Conservatives in Washington knew about the Fallon appearance. And they weren't pleased.
"He has time for Jimmy Fallon and not us?" Jane Parker, a Christian conservative from North Carolina, said while waiting for Bush to take the stage in Washington. "I really liked him to start. But he's not doing enough to support conservatives."