For weeks it seemed he had been preparing the ground for a run at the White House, but on Tuesday Chris Christie, the charismatic Republican Governor of New Jersey who has long enjoyed support among Democratic voters, officially ruled himself out of the race to be the GOP 2012 presidential candidate. In a carefully choreographed press conference at his statehouse in Trenton, on a stage bedecked with the Stars and Stripes, Christie told the assembled national media that “[although] serious people from across the spectrum, not to mention from all across the country, had passionately [called on me to run]… now is not my time”.
Christie had been encouraged to enter the field by a number of high profile figures on the American right – including Henry Kissinger and Rudy Giuliani – after Rick Perry, the former front-runner, stumbled in the latest round of TV debates. He had also won the backing of some extremely wealthy and influential Republican donaors, not least industrialist David Koch and hedge fund manager Paul Singer. It is likely their support will now transfer to Mitt Romney, a centrist with a track record of fiscal conservatism.
Unlike Christie, however, Romney is deeply unpopular with the GOP’s Tea Party contingent, which considers his role in implementing a version of Obama’s healthcare legislation as Governor of Massachusetts tantamount to treason. It is also wary of his apparent inconsistency on flagship ‘moral’ issues like gay marriage and stem-cell research. Yet the fact is, his chances of winning the candidacy stand or fall on his ability to persuade the grass-roots radicals that, despite looking, sounding and acting like a moderate with occasional liberal sympathies, he is really one of them.
Romney’s dilemma is indicative of the wider challenge facing the Republicans in their bid to remove Obama from office next year. On the one hand the party has to put up a nominee capable of galvanising an activist base which sits well the right of the American mainstream, and on the other it has to find someone who appeals to the politically moderate majority. Perry, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul can do the former but probably not the latter, while Romney and Jon Huntsman can achieve the latter but probably not the former.
Conversely, in President Obama the Democrats have a candidate perfectly equipped to achieve such a feat of triangulation. Having committed himself to a deficit reduction strategy based largely on public spending cuts, he will be able to draw in the right of his own party and the left of the Republicans. At the same time, the $450bn employment package he announced last month will go some way toward securing the votes of the lower-middle and working class constituency which propelled him to victory in 2008, but which has since grown disgruntled with his presidency.
It is likely Christie took all this into account when he made his decision not to stand. In his Tuesday media address he was, however, careful not to rule out a future tilt at Washington. 2012 is going to be a tough year for the Republicans. 2016 may not be so be quite so difficult.