Palatucci was a natural to become Bush’s N.J. connection

Democrats seem determined to tie former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie to President Bush if he becomes the Republican nominee for Governor, but Christie’s allies say that it was the ex-Prosecutor’s friend and top strategist, William Palatucci, who avidly championed Bush when he began running for President in the late 1990’s.

Christie, who was Palatucci’s law partner, raised money for George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign as part of a bigger effort coordinated by Palatucci, a veteran Republican operative who ran campaigns for Ronald Reagan, Thomas Kean and George H.W. Bush.

“It’s hard to imagine the Democrats not using every opportunity possible to highlight the fact that Chris Christie was part of an effort that raised significant money for George W. Bush, one of the most unpopular politicians in a generation” said Ben Dworkin, director of the David Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “He’s had an outstanding career as U.S. Attorney. But the connection is different from the one the Democrats tried to use against U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance.”

Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood), the Democratic candidate for Congress against Lance, ran repeated TV ads of Lance’s face interposed with that of Bush. Lance won by nine percentage points.

“But Christie’s different than Lance because Lance didn’t become an assemblyman and senator because George Bush picked him,” said Dworkin. “Christie became U.S. Attorney because George Bush did.”

The main strand of the Bush-Christie connection hinges on what for Palatucci was a fortuitous encounter with the younger Bush as the then-Texas governor geared up for his 2000 presidential campaign.

At that point, Palatucci’s relationship with the Bushes was already long and recurring, and it was in his role as the New Jersey chief of the presidential campaigns of Bush’s father that he developed a relationship with the younger Bush.

With or without his brothers, “W” would often stump here as a representative for his father. He would fly into Newark on a Continental Airlines commercial flight and Palatucci would retrieve him in a silver Honda.

Bush 41’s campaign in New Jersey was essentially built on the Bush kids coming here, in the words of those who remember the regular appearances of the younger Bushes.

Bush won New Jersey in 1988, beating Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. It was the last time a Republican presidential candidate was victorious here, as the state became a battleground in 1992, ultimately secured by Bill Clinton and every Democratic presidential candidate since.

In 1992, the senior Bush spent the day before the election at the Short Hills Hilton and rallied his forces at the Madison Municipal Building. Backstage was Palatucci and the future President.

Palatucci stayed in touch with the Bushes, exchanging holiday greetings with daughter, Doro.

Six years after Bush 41’s defeat, the New Jersey Republican political consultant attended a 1998 Republican Governor’s Association convention in New Orleans. At one point, he found himself in an otherwise empty room with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and an aide.

It’s an oft told Republican story, about how Bush remembered Palatucci from New Jersey and out of nowhere invited him to lunch in Austin. Palatucci wanted to know why. Bush told him never mind.

“Come to lunch in Austin,” said the Texas governor.

He then turned to his aide to make the arrangements. The aide was Karl Rove.

The trip turned out to be the first of many Palatucci would make in advance of the younger Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.

On January 7, 1999, Palatucci’s law partner Christie and others, including state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) and former state Sen. William Gormley (R-Atlantic), traveled to Austin to meet with the younger Bush. They made three trips to Austin, including one in March with 60 people, Christie among them.

In New Jersey, Bush beat McCain on his way to securing the Republican presidential nomination.

As the party’s finance chairman and Bush’s most active New Jersey confidante, Palatucci assembled a fundraising team, which included Christie. A comparatively easy fundraising gig since Bush was the front-runner; at one gig alone they raised $100,000 at $1,000 each.

Bush came a few times. Cheney came a few times.

The Palatucci organization raised more than $300,000. One of the most well-known donors was then-Gov. Christie Todd Whitman – a future director of the Environmental Protection Agency for Bush.

After Bush became president, Palatucci told him he would like his friend, Christie, a former Morris County Freeholder, to be considered for U.S. Attorney.

Bush obliged.

Franklin Township Mayor Brian D. Levine, a Republican whom sources say will officially kick off his campaign for governor before the end of the month, doesn’t think voters will ultimately judge the Bush connection as consequential for Christie.

“Voters will decide which issues are important, but it will come down to is what have you done can you win in a general election, and once you’re in there can you do the job,” said Levine.

Given the role Christie played in awarding a $52 million federal monitoring contract to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Dworkin doesn’t believe the Bush tag will go away easily for Christie. “The Ashcroft case reinforces the view of Chris Christie as being tied to the bush administration,” he said.

And yet, the din of incessant Bush-bashing will inevitably dwindle in the coming months, in the opinion of the political scientist.

“George Bush’s second term was a windfall to Democrats and a real blow to the Republicans’ self-image but he’s gone in a couple of weeks and then we’ll have somebody new,” Dworkin said. “By the time of the gubernatorial election it will be less about Bush and more about President Obama.”