AMES, Iowa—The applause didn’t come until the end, and even then it was more polite than rousing. Chris Christie had spent the past hour laying out his vision for reforming public schools and higher education in America, but not once did the crowd offer the New Jersey governor the type of spontaneous cheers maybe-presidential candidates come to Iowa for. The audience of around 100 listened intently, and laughed occasionally, but the atmosphere was more classroom than campaign rally.
“It’s time we had a conversation about education that isn’t defined by ideological dogma or narrow institutional interests,” Christie told a near-capacity room at Iowa State University, the first stop of a two-day swing through the early-nominating state. “Let’s talk about what real education reform for America looks like.”
And then he did.
With the help of a teleprompter, Christie delivered a wide-ranging and numbers-heavy speech that was noteworthy for its details. He leaned heavily on his experience as governor, and repeatedly took aim at teachers unions, long one of his favorite targets. The Republican hopeful also waded into the educational issue of the moment—the rising cost of a college education—blaming the problem on an “unnecessary college bureaucracy” filled with officials who are “drunk on cash.” Chief among his conservative solutions: Forcing universities to be more transparent with how they spend their money. The only topic that Christie avoided was Common Core, an omission that was difficult to miss given his recent reversal on the nationwide standards that are loathed by many on the right. (He used to be for it. Now he’s against it.)
For all its wonky details, though, Christie’s policy speech was peppered with potential applause lines—at least on paper. There were appeals to campus pride: “It was Iowa State that helped usher in a new digital age.” Nods to partisan identity: Free college is “a typical liberal approach—it is wrong, and we know it.” And even some the-children-are-our-future rhetoric for good measure: “Every hardworking student and teacher is leading us into the future.” Yet the applause never came, either because Christie never paused long enough to encourage it or because the speech overall was too serious to get the crowd going.
Still, that a roomful of Iowans was somewhat skeptical of Christie is probably less notable than the fact he had a roomful of Iowans to speak to in the first place. In the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey, Christie placed 9th in a crowded field with just 4 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers naming him as their top pick. In the same poll, Christie’s favorability split was well underwater, with more than twice as many people viewing him unfavorably as favorably. The only possible GOP candidate with a higher unfavorability rating than Christie’s 58 percent was Donald Trump’s 63 percent. When you’re in the same breath as a reality TV star best known for his hair, perhaps the surprise isn’t that the crowd isn’t clapping but instead that they’re willing to listen at all.
Among the small handful of Iowans I spoke to after the event, all said they were impressed with what they saw from Christie on Thursday. “He showed he’s not just that combative, in-your-face guy that he is in New Jersey,” said Frank Seydel, a local GOP party official in Story County, who suggested the more mild-mannered approach might play better in Iowa. When I asked if he would caucus for Christie when the time comes next year, though, Seydel said he wasn’t ready to commit to any candidate just yet. Unprompted, he then suggested Christie might be a good fit for a Cabinet-level position, “maybe Education Secretary.”