OKLAHOMA CITY—Chris Christie doesn't give speeches so much as engage in performance art. How he speaks is as much a part of his message as what he says. At the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Friday, after explaining his plan to manage the growth of entitlements, the New Jersey governor said he knows that Social Security is a “third rail of American politics,” but that's why he's meddling with it. “I just grabbed it and hugged it, everybody, because that’s what leadership is.”
Every Republican candidate has a strong suit he thinks will get him to the presidency. Sen. Marco Rubio says he represents the future, Sen. Ted Cruz says he’s the purest conservative, Sen. Rand Paul is Mr. Liberty, former Gov. Rick Perry is running on his Texas record, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is positioning himself to be the general election candidate. Christie’s route to relevance will be based on the show he puts on for voters.
Christie faces a steep hill to climb with Republicans. In the latest CBS News poll, 42 percent of Republicans said they would never vote for him. That's higher than any other candidate. What makes matters worse is that Christie is among the most well-known candidates in the field. That means unlike Gov. Scott Walker, who is still making a first impression with many primary-goers, voters already have opinions about Christie.
As Mom told us, it's hard to get a second chance to make a first impression. Christie is trying a variety of gambits anyway, including informing voters about his record, using the word conservative a lot, and unveiling policy proposals. But all of it is less important than the way he conveys the information.
Christie starts his remarks in his typical stump speech by talking about his bluntness, the product of his Irish and Italian parents. He tells the story of his mother, who instructed bluntness and truth-telling from an early age. This could be defensiveness—Jeb Bush starts by talking about his father and brother to clear the air, proclaims his love of family but also his independence, and moves on—but Christie has designed his speech and his entire performance around this bluntness. “I didn't run for governor of New Jersey to be elected prom king,” said Christie in New Hampshire last month. “I’m not looking to be the most popular guy in the world. I’m looking to be the most respected one.”
The message isn’t just what you see is what you get, but what you see is what you want. On no issue is this clearer than national security, where Christie, like all Republican candidates, is preaching strength as the antidote to the weakness President Obama has shown. When Christie makes his strength pitch, it’s not about his plan for destroying ISIS, restoring U.S. influence in Asia, or countering Vladimir Putin with a stronger NATO. It's about how he talks. “People say lots of different things about me, but they never say that I’m misunderstood, and they never say that I’m unclear. And no one around the world will doubt the resolve of the American people, doubt our strength … because I will say it directly, whether I’m saying it to a friend or an adversary.” In the strength in foreign policy contest, Christie hopes that showing is better than telling.
Will Christie’s rhetorical feats of strength work? It was working on some of the members of the audience who listened to him on Friday. “I wasn't fond of him when I came into the room, and he changed my opinion,” said Ben Ross, 67, of Oklahoma City. “I didn't like the way he responded to the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy. That hit me the wrong way, but these wounds healed, based on what he said.” Dane Trout of western Oklahoma stood outside the convention hall after Bush spoke and compared the two men: “Chris Christie had further to go with me than Jeb Bush, and he did that.”
Christie’s performance is pleasing to the crowd in a party craving strength after the Obama years, but the question is whether any of the conversions he performed on voters are permanent. If so, those grim poll numbers can be improved. Then he's got to find a way to get himself in front of every possible voter he can.
At the end of his strong-man act, Christie returned to the story of his mother. On her deathbed she told him that because they had been frank with each other their whole lives, there was nothing left to say, and he should go back to work. Strong stuff.