In ’09, is Christie the Hillary and Lonegan the Obama?

Christopher J. Christie got a big headline yesterday with the indictment of former state Sen. Joseph Coniglio. But his victory in prosecuting another prominent public official was tempered a bit by a Wednesday New York Times story harshly critical of “the way he has conducted business” and a Thursday editorial that slammed him around.

Has the aura of inevitability around Christie as the Republican nominee for Governor in 2009 faded?

The next election is nineteen months away, and it’s not even a sure bet that Gov. Jon Corzine will seek reelection. But of the few Republican candidates on the horizon, this winter belongs to conservative activist and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, whose name is associated with the defeat of two ballot measures in November’s election, and who has taken a stand at the forefront of the anti-monetization movement, warming him to the type of mainstream Republican politicians with whom he’s feuded with in the past.

Add to that the Democrats’ criticism of Christie for handing a federal oversight contract worth $28 to $52 million to his former boss, John Ashcroft, and you have an interesting dynamic developing.

“All of a sudden Steve’s got a lot of new friends,” said political strategist Rick Shaftan, a close aide to Lonegan. “Not that Steve’s necessarily running, but they’re saying this might be the guy here.”

Lonegan has his own troubles. By his own admission, he’s under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office. But Lonegan is the one who publicized that at a press conference, accusing Attorney General Anne Milgram and the Governor of conspiring against him as retribution for his outspokenness. And Lonegan, who campaigns vigorously against illegal immigration, was caught employing two undocumented workers in October to assemble signs for Americans for Prosperity – an anti-tax group for which he serves as the state director. (Lonegan said that at least one of the men is documented).

Lonegan still hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for Governor, saying that he’s certain he can turn the state around, but isn’t sure that the Republican Party is ready for him. They weren’t in 2005, when Lonegan ran for the office and finished in a distant fourth place – behind Doug Forrester, Bret Schundler and John Murphy.

Lonegan downplays the significance of his troubles to voters.

“It’s not as bad as a congressional investigation for giving out huge no-bid contracts to friends,” said Lonegan, who is an unpaid columnist. “I’m enjoying what I’m doing very much. The question over the next year is whether the party is ready to take a leadership role, draw a line in the sand and take on this government. Or do they want to be the minority party?”

If Lonegan does wind up as the long-shot candidate running to the right of the more mainstream Republican, he may want to look to the 1978 U.S. Senate campaign of Jeffrey Bell, who, like Lonegan, was an anti-tax conservative, and was considered the underdog against four-term incumbent Republican Senator Clifford Case. Bell hammered home a call for tax cuts and squeaked out a 1% victory.

Bell went on to lose to Democrat Bill Bradley in the general election, however, and the state hasn’t elected a Republican Senator ever since.

“If there’s an analogy to my race it’s that you need to make sure the one issue is pounded into the consciousness of the voters,” said Bell, who now works as a lobbyist in Washington. For Bell, that issue was championing a 30% income tax cut. Now, he said, the issue that New Jersey faces one of the highest tax burdens in the country.

“I think Lonegan has that knack of getting things front and center, in a kind of populist perspective that bothers a lot of voters….. The one danger is he likes to jump on things as they come up – that’s what I understand from reading about him — and you can get diluted with too many different themes if you don’t watch it.”

Still, despite Christie’s recent woes and Lonegan’s PR victories, the current U.S. Attorney remains the preferred candidate of the party leaders and elite.

“The truth is that Chris [Christie] continues to be the star attraction for most party leaders in terms of the potential candidate for next year,” said GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson.

Wilson did credit Lonegan with being an articulate voice in the opposition to the ballot measures, and as an effective opponent of the Governor’s toll hike plan.

Particularly telling was when Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. demanded an investigation into Lonegan’s arrest at one of Gov. Corzine’s toll plan town hall meetings.

For years, Lonegan has been as active against those he saw as moderate Republicans as against Democrats. In his recently-published book, Putting Taxpayers First, he rails against leadership of both parties.

“I think everybody recognizes that Steve brings an awful lot to the discussion and debate and his ability to look at this from a different perspective that’s not tainted whatsoever from the Trenton thinking,” said Wilson.

Democrats are undoubtedly thrilled to be able to criticize the once nearly untouchable Christie, at whom many still harbor bitter feelings for dropping subpoenas on U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez at the height of a hotly contested Senate campaign against Kean, Jr.

New Jerseyans are painfully familiar with no-bid contracts, said Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey project. It is, in other words, an issue that could potentially resonate with voters.

“It’s a general comment about campaigns that you don’t want to have to explain yourself. In other words, if something comes up and you have to explain why or how it happened, that takes you off of your message, and in fact who you are,” said Reed. “It’s a complication in what looks like a totally perfect situation for a candidate.”

But prominent Republicans refuse to consider the calls for Christie to explain himself anything but Democrats playing politics.

State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a confidante of Christie’s, said that Christie doesn’t discuss his gubernatorial prospects with him.

“It’s obvious that big sharp knives are out for the U.S. Attorney. It’s very clear and well-orchestrated,” said Kyrillos. “The guy’s trying to do his job, and by all accounts he’s doing an excellent job. I didn’t see people getting too upset when [former U.S. Sen.] Bob Toricelli was named federal monitor by a federal judge – probably a federal judge that he had a hand in nominating.”

The potential of a Christie run still has at least one Republican hesitant about whether he’ll run.

Morris County Freeholder John Murphy has a not-so-friendly history with the U.S. Attorney– he faced a lawsuit from Christie after beating him in a freeholder primary in the 1990s. But if Christie does decide to run for office, Murphy said that having someone else from Morris County with such a high profile could dim his own chances.

“That doesn’t mean you don’t run because someone’s going to be anointed, but you certainly have to take pause and look at the playing field,” he said. “Right now if most people were being honest as we sit here in February 2008, he would clearly be the favorite.” In ’09, is Christie the Hillary and Lonegan the Obama?