Conservatives wait to see where Christie stands

Yesterday, when veteran Republican political operative Dan Gallic announced that he was forming an organization to draft conservative activist Steve Lonegan into the Governor's race next year, he lamented the candidates Republicans typically choose for statewide races as "weak-kneed wimpy moderates who believe in nothing and are afraid to throw a punch."

Today, Gallic said that language doesn't apply to the two other most high profile potential candidates next year: U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie and biotech millionaire John Crowley.

"I was referring to the past slew of candidates who have lost by 9 or 10 points," said Gallic, who managed conservative State Sen. Joe Pennacchio's run for U.S. Senate earlier this year. "So far what I've seen is a far better group of candidates than the Republicans have put up in quite some time, all of which have no ties to the establishment at this point."

But Gallic's early support of Lonegan, who if he runs will likely stake out a position as the most conservative candidate, raises an interesting question about Christie: where does he stand ideologically?

"I think he'll have to answer that himself," said Gallic.

But that's the problem. After almost seven years as U.S. Attorney, Christie has been in no position to elaborate on his political beliefs, and it's hard to glean too much information from his past as an elected official: one term as a Morris County Freeholder, where questions about hot button state and national political issues tend to take a back seat to local problems.

Take, for instance, the ultimate conservative litmus test issue: abortion.

Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris Township), one of the most conservative members of the legislature, won his first Assembly race against Christie in 1995. He recalled a young Christie stepping into the scene to challenge State Sen. John Dorsey in 1993 from the left (Christie never made it onto the ballot because of a petition mix-up).

"I like Chris a lot, but when he originally ran against Dorsey, one of the things he was basing his campaign on was he was anti-gun and pro-choice," said Carroll.

But at some point between 1993 and 1997, Christie had a change of heart. Carroll remembers it as coming about from his having children. Others who knew Christie at the time said he was swayed by watching a video tape of an abortion procedure presented by a pro-life group. Whatever brought it about, Christie had the support Morris County Right to Life for his unsuccessful freeholder reelection campaign in 1997.

"He always claimed to be a conservative thereafter. I think he uses that word quite often, and I have no reason to doubt it," said Carroll.

Rick Shaftan, a conservative consultant and advisor to Lonegan, said that Carroll is going easy on Christie. He recalled pro-choice flyer issued by Christie during the Assembly race, along with a flyer criticizing Carroll and incumbent Anthony Bucco for wanting to repeal the assault weapons ban, which read "it's dangerous. It's radical. It's crazy. They must be stopped."

Michael Illions, an activist and blogger who flirted with a congressional run late last year, said he's never met Christie and is unsure of his positions. But he's heard a lot of speculation about his political beliefs.

"From what I've heard from people who know him is that he's an establishment candidate: pro-choice, moderate, tough on crime and ethics," he said. "I wouldn't put him in the (former Jersey City Mayor) Bret Schundler/Steve Lonegan category. I'd put him more in the Dick Zimmer/Leonard Lance category."

New Jersey Right to Life Executive Director Marie Tasy said that she's heard Christie is pro-life but has "no personal knowledge of his position."

State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown), a personal friend of Christie's, didn't want to elaborate too much on Christie's ideology because it would create the presumption that he's already decided to run for governor.

"It's premature to talk about this, because Chris has not made up his mind," he said. "But, having said that, he would make an outstanding candidate, and he would appeal to all kinds of New Jerseyans, including the conservative base of the Republican Party."

Kyrillos said he wouldn't venture to explain Christie's feelings on the Second Amendment, but did give some indication of Christie's socially conservative leanings. On the fiscal front, he noted that Christie's frequent, high profile public corruption prosecutions have already indirectly helped promote fiscal conservatism in Trenton.

"Chris is pro-life. Chris is a fiscal conservative. Democrats in New Jersey gave special projects a bad name, and it's frankly in large measure because of the work of the US Attorney that there were no Christmas tree items in the budget this year," he said.

Christie did face some criticism from conservatives over immigration remarks he made to a Latino group in Dover, where he said that living in the United States without proper paperwork was an "administrative matter." He quickly issued a press release clarifying his remarks.

The public's lack of familiarity with Christie's ideology, however, could benefit him in a general election, according to Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. Murray says that Republican candidates with clearly defined, very conservative credentials don't tend to perform well in the general election, pointing to Schundler's lost to Jim McGreevey by 14 points). After a long sabbatical from taking public stances on political questions, Christie could be able to define himself anew.

"The fact that he has a bit of a blank slate to start with is good. I say that not meaning that he's going to change what he believes if he's going to run for elected office, but that he comes out of the box being able to define who he is fairly easily right away."

Morris County Republican Chairman John Sette said he couldn't speak for Christie's beliefs. But while Sette said that he shares Lonegan's conservative principles, he warned purists that they ought to support the most electable man.

"The bottom line is that I think Christie is our only hope, and I really hope that he runs," he said. "Because if he doesn’t run, we get Jon Corzine again or Dick Codey."