Chris Christie tackles his problem with conservative voters

Ed might have more thoughts on this moment because it may arguably be one of the most important moments from a pretty consequential Iowa Freedom Summit. At least, from the perspective of someone watching the event from a distance.

On paper, “Chris Christie heckled at Iowa Freedom Summit” sounds like a video that you wouldn’t want to miss. And the New Jersey governor was briefly jeered at by one young man in the audience, but that moment was actually rather underwhelming (aside from the applause the governor received after dismissing the boisterous lad).

Christie’s speech to a crowd of conservatives attending the annual conference sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) was far more interesting for its political value.

It opened with what seemed like a genuinely warm welcome from the Iowa audience, likely due in part to the effusive praise Christie received in an introduction from King. It was praise that the governor happily reciprocated.

Right at the open of his address, Christie tackled the elephant in the room: His sagging support among Republican primary voters.

Once presumed to be the party’s last, best hope to retake the White House, Christie is now a singularly disliked figure among self-identified Republicans. A recent CBS News survey found that Republican voters are warmer to the idea of a Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and even a Mike Huckabee campaign than they are of a Christie bid in 2016. Only Sarah Palin inspires more Republicans to say they would oppose that prospective presidential candidate. In fact, Christie’s political fortunes have ebbed so precipitously that an unnamed advisor to the governor recently told USA Today that it is still possible that he might not even “hit the start button” if he finds that the various establishment candidates in the race have already sewn up the donations available to him.

But it seems that Christie is not out of the game yet. In Iowa, the Garden State governor burst out of the gate with an acknowledgment of his failure to appeal to conservatives.

“I have heard and read the conventional wisdom,” Christie began, “that somehow a guy from New Jersey would not be welcomed or understood at the Iowa Freedom Summit. That somehow I’m too loud, I’m too blunt, and I’m too direct.”

That’s not really the issue here, but go on…

“If the values I’m fighting for every day in New Jersey and all across this country are not consistent with your values, then why do I keep coming back?” Christie said after noting he has made 11 visits to the Hawkeye State in recent years after being invited by figures like King and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

“This is just the conventional wisdom from Washington D.C. that thinks we aren’t friends,” he continued. “It’s the conventional wisdom from Washington D.C. that argues that a conservative Republican governor from New Jersey can’t possibly share the same values with conservative Republicans here in Iowa.”

From here, Christie launched into what has become his pitch. He noted that he was a Republican Governors Association chairman with a stellar track record of getting Republicans elected statewide (a pitch that will appeal to the donor base). The governor also touched on a theme from his most recent State of the State address, in which he noted that America is today a “nation beset by anxiety.” That speech prompted Washington Post political analyst Chris Cillizza to assert that Christie could still be “a powerful force” in the race, provided the governor can put some compelling policy behind the rhetoric.

Christie touted his record reforming union pensions and benefits in New Jersey, his success in reforming the entrenched public education system in this state (another reorganization opposed by a powerful union lobby), and he noted that he has twice been elected governor in a blue state as an outspoken pro-life candidate.

“I can assure you that being pro-life is not a political liability anywhere in America,” Christie added. “Being honest with the people you hope to represent, about the feelings you hold deeply, is never, ever a political liability whether it’s politically popular at the moment or not. And I will never change doing it that way.”

That line received tepid applause, but it seemed important. It essentially summed up the core of the Christie pitch to conservatives: You may not love me, but you’ll respect my honesty.

What’s more, Christie’s approach to pro-life issues in this speech took on added urgency as a result of the debacle precipitated by congressional Republicans who failed to pass their own bill banning the practice of electoral abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Christie framed himself as a candidate who could capitalize on anti-Washington sentiment. That’s important. Christie needs to divorce himself from the impression Republican primary voters have of him as the establishment’s choice if he does hope to appeal to Iowa caucus-goers and South Carolina primary voters as well as New Hampshire’s moderates.

Christie closed with a fiery call to arms in defense of the nation’s freedoms, and he was given a standing ovation from the audience of Freedom Summit attendees. The whole 25-minute speech is worth a watch, and the reaction from this presumably skeptical audience is informative. Christie knows he has a problem with conservatives and, without wallowing in it, he did what he could to address and mollify those voters’ concerns. If this is his pitch to the party’s right-wing, those who have not completely closed their minds to the prospect of a Christie campaign may find it a persuasive one.

One of the nation’s best political analysts, The Cook Report’s Amy Walter, recently noted that Christie’s negatives among conservatives strike her as “disqualifying.” He had his chance to appeal to a Republican electorate, and he blew it. The view from January, 2015 suggests that she is right. But there are moments like that which occurred in Iowa this weekend that suggest that the minds of those who make up the Republican primary electorate could still change. There is a lot of campaign left between today and the early 2016 states, and Christie appears interested in joining the fight.