In early October, Christie traveled to Iowa, to appear at a fund-raiser for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad. Speaking in a banquet hall outside Des Moines, Christie regaled 700 people—who paid $100 apiece to hear him speak and $1,500 to have a photo taken with him—with tales of his budgetary heroics. “You thought fiscal ’10 was fun,” he said to the smitten Iowans, “wait till you hear about fiscal ’11.” After his speech, Christie and Branstad met with reporters. Branstad—who served four terms as Iowa governor in the eighties and nineties and now, having won his fifth term, could be a 2012 caucus kingmaker—went first. “I don’t think I’ve been that inspired by a speech since Ronald Reagan was here,” he said. When it was Christie’s turn, he issued his standard denials about a presidential run. But then, when the press conference was over, a Christie aide flagged down Tom Beaumont, the Des Moines Register’s chief political reporter and a journalist any wannabe presidential candidate absolutely needs to get to know. About 30 seconds later, Beaumont and Christie headed off together for a more intimate interview.
Back in New Jersey, many politicos, especially the Democrats, don’t put much stock in Christie’s denials. “He swears a million times over, but c’mon, guys like me and him have egos,” Steve Sweeney told me. “You can already hear the speech. ‘In times like these, I have to put personal considerations aside and do this for my country …’ ” More than one person I spoke to made an analogy to another politician who had considerable star power but little experience when he decided to run for president. “This is sort of his Obama moment,” says Steve DeMicco, New Jersey’s preeminent Democratic strategist. “He either grabs the opportunity or he doesn’t.”
There are risks for Christie in waiting. New Jersey governors tend to get undue amounts of national attention early in their terms owing to the fact that the state holds its elections in off-years, and given the looming fiscal apocalypse, Christie is getting a lot of credit simply by stepping up to the plate. “I’m not sure I agree with everything he’s advocating, but he’s trying to address the problems,” says Jim Florio, a Democrat who was perhaps the last New Jersey governor to take fiscal responsibility seriously. “I admire his courage.”