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Christie calls for 'American renewal' in state speech with national ambitions

Gov. Chris Christie delivered remarks Tuesday on the state of New Jersey -- but his intended audience seemed to have been much larger.

TRENTON, New Jersey -- Gov. Chris Christie delivered remarks Tuesday on the state of New Jersey -- but his intended audience seemed to have been much larger.

In his annual address, the Republican and potential 2016 presidential candidate did highlight accomplishments in the Garden State, but he also emphasized several themes he is likely to take up should he make a bid for the Oval Office. The governor criticized a “bloated national government,” called on both a “New Jersey and an American renewal,” and spoke of his recent travels across the country.

In the nearly one-hour speech, Christie said “America” seven times, “nation” or “national” five times and “country” five times. He spoke of his visits to several states in the U.S. -- a country he described as “beset by anxiety,” noting conversations he had with farmers in Kansas, teachers in Colorado, veterans in Maine and workers in Kansas, as well as stops in Chicago and the suburbs of Maryland.

The only specific person’s story he told was of a woman from the swing state of Florida.

"When we stand here one year from now -- by the way, I’ll be standing here … I will be here in one year …"'

"But the wisest words came from an 82-year-old woman in Florida," he said. "She grabbed my hand and asked me a simple, but powerful question: 'What’s happened to our country? We used to control events. Now events control us.'"

“We need to renew the spirit and the hopes of our state, our country and our people,” Christie continued, addressing the standing-room only crowd at the legislative chambers in the state capital.

The speech could be Christie’s last big public address before he makes his presidential plans public. His remarks come on the heels of news that Ray Washburne, the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, will be stepping down this week and will reportedly join Christie’s likely presidential campaign.

Perhaps anticipating an upcoming presidential announcement, Christie used his State of the State to take apparent aim at the Obama administration. “It’s understandable,” he said of the country’s anxiety. “Economic growth is low by post-war recovery standards. America’s leadership in the world is called into question because of a pattern of indecision and inconsistency. During this time of uncertainty, it seems our leaders in Washington would rather stoke division for their own political gain.”

The tone couldn’t have been more different than Christie’s annual address last year, which took place after e-mails were made public showing members of his administration were involved in a plot to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly for political retribution – a scandal that has left a lasting stain on the governor. During that speech, Christie -- known for his brash and bold style -- was more reserved. The governor (who has long denied any prior knowledge of the scheme) admitted “mistakes were clearly made,” but insisted that they did not define him or the state. He reportedly met last month with federal authorities looking into the plot.

RELATED: Christie questioned by feds over ‘Bridgegate’: reports

Christie on Tuesday also said he’d be in New Jersey one year from now, an apparent reference to some lawmakers who have called on the Republican to step down if he does run for president. “When we stand here one year from now -- by the way, I’ll be standing here … I will be here in one year … so that when we stand here in one year, our today will be better than yesterday and our tomorrow will be filled with real opportunity,” said the governor.

The governor spent some time Tuesday touting specific state achievements including bail reform, expanding the mandatory drug court program, improvements in charter schools, and cutting spending. But the speech comes as a new poll shows Christie's popularity in his home state is sliding. The Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind’s survey, released Tuesday, found state residents are split over Christie’s job performance with 39% approving and 47% disapproving. Just two years ago, three-fourths of New Jersey registered voters approved of the governor’s job performance, with less than 20% disapproving. 

Just under half -- 49% -- in the latest survey said they were concerned over the direction of the state and only 36% said they were satisfied.

“This is the first time Gov. Christie faces a public with numbers like these in regard to his leadership,” said Krista Jenkins, a professor of political science and director of PublicMind. “Regardless of what he says, many in the state will receive his words with skepticism given their concerns over his leadership and the overall health of governance in New Jersey.”

Before Christie’s speech, about 100 residents, Hurricane Sandy survivors, and members of grassroots organizations gathered outside the Statehouse for their own “State of Our State: The People’s Address” in which they railed against the governor’s record on several issues including the economy, pension reform and the environment. They also accused the governor of trying to spin a failed record to help fulfill 2016 goals.

“No speech can spin away six years of failed policies that have tanked New Jersey’s economy and left families out in the cold,” said Analilia Mejia, director of New Jersey Working Families.

Jim Keady, the Spring Lake resident who was famously told last year by the governor to “sit down and shut up” during an event at Belmar for the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, was also demonstrating. He held a sign that said “I’ll sit down and shut up when you stand up for Sandy victims.”

If Sandy recovery is “one of his top priorities, I’d hate to see his lesser priorities because he has shown zero leadership on this issue and thousands of New Jersey families are suffering because of it.” Keady added that he though Christie would simply “utilize this opportunity to politically posture and position himself for a run for the presidency. He has abandoned the citizens of New Jersey and it is evident at every turn.”

Christie's rough year extends beyond politics, too. The state’s credit rating has been downgraded by the three major rating agencies, with growing pension obligations on the horizon. Economic recovery has been slow, with the state’s unemployment rate at 6.4%, compared to the national average of 5.6%. And the state saw approximately 8,000 casino workers lose their jobs following the headline-grabbing shuttering of several casinos in Atlantic City -- an issue Christie did not bring up in his address.

And there’s also the more recent criticism over the governor’s all-expense-paid-trip by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for box seats and a private jet to watch the Texas team play – and whether or not state ethics rules were violated. Jones is a part-owner of a company that had won a contract with the Port Authority, an agency that is overseen by Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Christie’s office has claimed the governor’s friendship with Jones began after the Port Authority bid, but the governor nonetheless paid his own way to the Cowboys game in Green Bay over the weekend.

Christie has said he would likely make a decision about whether or not to run for president sometime early this year. But many are speculating the governor could move up his timetable, especially as moderate Republicans like himself, including former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, inch closer to a bid themselves. The three could potentially end up vying for the same pool of mainstream cash and moderate GOP voters. 

Jim Keady, a Spring Lake resident protests today in Trenton, N.J.

According to NBC News' Kelly O'Donnell, sources familiar with Christie say donors and have discussed ways to fund and support his potential political activities but "nothing is set in stone" and "there is  no specific timeline on staff" or a specific fundraising vehicle. Sources say Christie is "not in a rush" and "feels no pressure" based on the actions of other potential candidates. Christie's office and political advisers declined to comment.  

Even if Christie hasn’t explicitly made his 2016 intentions known, he’s certainly walking the walk. The governor is hitting the road this month to attend a slew of inauguration ceremonies for fellow governors that he helped get elected as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. He was in the swing state of Florida last week and has plans to go to the bellwether state of Ohio, in addition to the crucial early voting states of South Carolina and Iowa. He’ll also go to Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland – traditional blue states (much like New Jersey) where Christie helped elect GOP governors in the midterms. The last of that class will be Maryland's Larry Hogan next week, and Christie is scheduled to speak at the event. 

The trips are being seen as an opportunity for Christie to take a victory lap and meet potential fundraisers if he decides to run nationally.

According to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polling data surrounding the still nascent 2016 presidential nomination, Bush holds a slight lead over potential GOP contenders with 17% support. Close behind are Christie with 11.2%, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin (who announced Monday that he will not run for president in 2016) with 10%, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky with 8.6%. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker all follow, tied with 8% each.