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Embattled Christie gets chance to woo conservatives

The New Jersey governor will speak next month at the right’s biggest event of the year. And boy could he use their support.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie participates in a Super Bowl event in New York, Feb. 1, 2014.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie participates in a Super Bowl event in New York, Feb. 1, 2014.

Chris Christie will take the stage next month at the right’s biggest event of the year, the Conservative Political Action Conference. And right about now, the embattled New Jersey governor could use their support in a major way. 

The annual gathering, hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU), is a major showcase for Republican presidential candidates. This year’s speakers are expected to include potential 2016ers Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal, among others.

Christie hasn’t always had the best relationship with conservative activists. He was left off the invite list for CPAC 2013 after he praised President Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy, blasted House Republicans for blocking federal disaster aid, and accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. This time, he’s back on probation, with ACU chair Al Cardenas telling Yahoo’s Chris Moody that he’s “very excited” to have him in attendance.

Christie may have his differences with movement conservatives, but there's no denying they’re the folks you want on your team when there’s a career-threatening scandal heading your way.

Here’s the situation confronting Christie right now. At home, he faces an ever-growing list of investigations into the closure of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge, a real estate development in Hoboken, and the distribution of Sandy relief aid.

Christie has tried to make the case to national conservatives that the scandals surrounding his office are a political and ideological witch-hunt. When Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer appeared on MSNBC to allege the administration had threatened to withhold Sandy Aid over a real estate project, his office’s first reaction was to call MSNBC a “partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him” and label his New Jersey accusers “Democratic mayors with a political axe to grind.”

There’s a reason Christie’s taken this approach. The Republican base is intensely skeptical of the national press and wary of any Democratic pile-on against one of their own. Over and over again, Republican leaders–especially those with presidential aspirations–have been able to translate this resentment into a backlash that sends fellow conservatives rushing to protect them out of solidarity. Most recently, Mike Huckabee surged to the top of the Republican field in one poll after an avalanche of Democratic attacks over his remarks about birth control and “libidos.” But the former Arkansas governor was hardly the first to successfully capitalize on this dynamic: Newt Gingrich’s high point in the 2012 primaries came when he attacked CNN’s John King for asking him about allegations by his ex-wife that he had requested an open marriage in lieu of divorce. Herman Cain found plenty of defenders in talk radio after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced during the same campaign.

Christie, however, hasn’t been able to make this trick work. Nationally, he’s found few Republicans willing to unreservedly take his side. Activists and politicians across a wide ideological spectrum appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach, unsure whether more incriminating documents might be lurking around the corner. Left to fend for himself, Christie has slid rapidly in national polls.

A backlash on the right against Christie’s critics could only go so far–there’s a reason Gingrich didn’t win the nomination and Cain had to drop out–but right now he badly needs conservatives in his corner. CPAC will be his best shot to make the case to the most influential players in the movement that he’s the victim in this story and worthy of their aid. Whether they’ll listen after years of bitter feuds is an open question, but at this point he’s got nothing to lose by trying.