New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks to attendees at Conservative Political Action Conference , March 6, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.
Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC

Christie tries to shore up support from right


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may not always get along with the grassroots right, but he hates the press and thinks President Obama is a failure. Isn’t that enough?

“We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for, because when we talk about what we’re for, no matter what state we’re in, our ideas win,” Christie told activists at a much-anticipated speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday.

Christie may have been the darling of political commentators during his rise, but lately he has taken to rebutting attacks against his administration as a liberal media conspiracy to take him down. CPAC, where this kind of resentment is a decades-old tradition, is as good a place as any for a humbled Christie to try to win some allies.

“We have to take these guys on directly,” Christie said, referring to the press.

The governor was left off the speakers list for CPAC in 2013, which was unusual for a major presidential prospect, as conservatives grumbled he had grown too close to President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

The Cycle, 3/6/14, 4:42 PM ET

Chris Christie tries to win back the right

NBC News’ Luke Russert and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki discuss the details of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s remarks at CPAC on Thursday.
NBC News’ Luke Russert and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki discuss the details of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s remarks at CPAC on Thursday.

Christie did his best to dispel that image Thursday, going after the president repeatedly by name in his remarks. At one point, Christie blamed Obama for not mediating bipartisan talks to cut the debt, which ultimately ended in failure and triggered the sequester cuts in effect today.

“If that’s your attitude, Mr. President, then what the hell are we paying you for?” he said.

Christie’s earlier relationship with Obama may have been poison with the GOP base, but his response to the storm couldn’t have gone better in New Jersey: his approval rating surged to heights normally associated with wartime presidents, and he ended up winning re-election handily against token Democratic opposition.

Since then, a series of scandals at home have dragged him back down to earth with general election and primary voters alike. A new Washington Post/ABC News survey this week found 30% of Republican respondents said they would definitely vote against him for president, the highest of any Republican candidate tested. A separate Fox News poll found that only 24% of respondents thought Christie would make a good president, versus 52% who did not. The numbers weren’t much better among Republicans, either: 34% thought he’d do well in the White House, versus 50% who disagreed.

Christie did not address his recent struggles at home in his speech, instead opening his remarks with an old anecdote about urging an angry room of union firefighters to support his efforts to cut pensions. He also reminded the audience of his pro-life positions, while still praising the party for allowing pro-choice politicians like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell to address Republican conventions.

“When they said it could never be done, twice, New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor,” he said.

The rest was mostly familiar rhetoric. Republicans “have to start talking about what we’re for and not what we’re against,” he said at one point. “Republican governors have stood up and done things, not just talked about it,” Christie, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, boasted at another. 

Christie’s speech was a relative success with the audience, who applauded his remarks at several points. But as he tried to rebuild his brand, he won’t be making his case in a vacuum. His speech was preceded by remarks from potential 2016 rivals, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio were also on the schedule.

Christie can take some comfort in not being the only speaker working to shore up his position with the right. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is facing a primary challenger from the right in Matt Bevin, held up a rifle during his speech, a gift to retiring Sen. Tom Coburn. Rubio, who is still working to overcome conservative opposition to his Senate immigration bill, opted not to mention the issue in his speech, instead focusing his remarks on maintaining an interventionist foreign policy abroad amid a crisis in Ukraine.