GOP not bothered by Christie hiring of Ashcroft

The controversy surrounding U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie’s selection of John Ashcroft for a lucrative federal monitor position may have roiled Democrats, but it hasn’t changed Republicans’ feelings about their would-be gubernatorial nominee.

That’s not to say that Christie has come out and announced he’s running for governor. In fact, he consistently blows off speculation about a potential run, saying that members of the media obsess about it more than he does.

That may be true. But members of the Republican Party obsess about it too, and the revelation about him giving his former boss a hefty paycheck hasn’t dampened the establishment’s enthusiasm for Christie as their nominee in 2009 – should he choose to run, of course. The election may be two years away, but all signs point to vast Republican support for a Christie candidacy.

“I think you’d have a hard time finding a substantial group in the party that isn’t eager for him to be our candidate, but at the same time everyone recognizes that Chris will do what Chris will do when he does it,” said Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson.

The crux of the Democrats’ argument against Christie is that, by assigning a contract with up to $52 million through such a non-transparent process, Christie’s appointment of Ashcroft wasn’t necessarily wrong – just too shadowy for someone who’s supposed to be the state’s shining beacon of virtue. And when Democrats do bring up the Ashcroft flap, they’re almost always sure to first say how much they respect Christie’s work fighting corruption-as did the critical letter of U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone. Meanwhile, Democrats insist that the letter was written out of genuine concern and without regard to political implications.

But while Democrats may point to this flap in any upcoming Christie campaign as hypocritical, Republicans feel assured that the public will give their Elliot Ness-like figure the benefit of the doubt because of his squeaky clean reputation.

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a long-time Christie confidant, repeated Christie’s oft-repeated response to questions about him running for governor, saying that if he continues to do a good job in that role many opportunities will open up in both the public and private sector. But he did say that the recent criticisms of Christie from members of the Democratic Congressional delegation were intended to take him down a peg.

“As to these nips from the Congressman and others, it’s clearly political,” said Kyrillos, a former Republican State Chairman. “The Democratic members of Congress who are making a fuss about this rather than try to fix the problems with the country, and are part of the do-nothing congress, are playing politics with federal prosecutors trying to do their job.”

Last night, Christie echoed those sentiments himself at a forum hosted by the Bergen Record.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni said that the fuss over Ashcroft demonstrates that Democrats are worried about a potential candidacy on his part.

“I guess it’s a sign that folks on the other side of the aisle worry about Chris Christie as a candidate,” said Baroni, who won a State Senate seat last month. “I think anyone who wants to earn a Republican nomination for office, whether it’s running for town council or running for governor, you have to go out and earn it…. Chris has certainly got a record we think he can be proud of.”

Morris County Freeholder John J. Murphy is also considering a bid. Murphy, who came in third in the 2005 Republican gubernatorial primary, is from Christie’s home county. The two have a history, having gone through a nasty freeholder campaign against each other in 1997, with Murphy winning and Christie filing a lawsuit against him that resulted in a settlement.

But Murphy said whether or not Christie runs will factor into his decision on whether he’ll enter the race.

“If Chris wants to get in, that will certainly be an important part of my decision. Any potential candidate that’s being honest with you has to certainly look and see who else is in, and if one of those who elses is Chris, you have to take pause,” said Murphy. “Here’s a guy who has done an excellent job as U.S. Attorney, and from what I’m hearing he will be running, but stranger things have happened. Another opportunity presents itself, he gets reappointed as the U.S. Attorney. You never know.”

John Inglesino, a Morris County Freeholder who is leaving office at the end of the year, refused to say if he would back Christie or fellow Freeholder John J. Murphy for Governor.

“Nothing like trying to stir the pot,” Inglesino told PolitickerNJ.com. “The only people who speculate about things that happen that far out in advance are fools, because the landscape will change several times between now and then.”

Asked if he’s discussed the gubernatorial race with the federal prosecutor, Inglesino said “I’m not going to participate in all of the speculation here.”

“I can tell you that I have extremely high regard for him. I think he’s done a magnificent job at the United State Attorney.”

Christie’s most likely opponent for the Republican nomination is Steven Lonegan, the Mayor of Bogota and the leader of the state GOP’s conservative wing. Lonegan refused capitalize on the Christie controversy, insisting that Pallone’s criticism was purely political.

There has been speculation that Bob Schroeder, a Bergen County businessman and president of the Township of Washington’s council, will make another primary bid for the nomination, but Schroeder said that he’s not likely to run. Instead, he’s going to wait for a legislative seat to open up in the 39th district.

Democrats say off the record that they hope the heat Christie is taking on the Ashcroft issue will encourage others to develop the fortitude to raise more questions about the likely GOP candidate.

“The question becomes is it really clouding his judgment, and if it does what happens down the line if he has to leave the office in order to run for governor — whether he’ll make further missteps,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “The issue is whether he is going to give the Democrats any more fodder between now and then.”

Moreover, Murray said, while Christie’s reputation for prosecuting public corruption is sterling, the issue still doesn’t have the same resonance with the voting public as property taxes. Democrats can’t challenge Christie on corruption – instead, they’ll have to take the reigns on other issues that voters care about, while instituting more ethics reforms to try to take at least some of the air out of Christie’s corruption busting credentials.

“You want to take that issue off the table if you’re a Democrat and put a different issue on the table,” said Murray.

GOP not bothered by Christie hiring of Ashcroft