New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a new national icon for the Republican Party thanks in part to his push for pension reforms, on Monday became the most prominent GOP figure to warn against "overreacting" to the threat of terror and painting "all of Islam" with the brush of terrorism amid the swirling controversy about the Ground Zero-area mosque.
The remarks from Christie, who took office in January, were a striking departure from major GOP players like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich, who have been adamantly opposed to the construction of the proposed Islamic mosque and cultural center two blocks north of the northern perimeter of Ground Zero - putting them at odds with people like New York City Mayor Bloomberg and, to a lesser degree, President Barack Obama.
He also spoke as Republicans made clear over the past two days that they plan to use the issue to try to frame the debate against Democrats nationally. The governor essentially cast a pox on both parties' houses, saying the Republicans and Democrats are using the issue as a "political football."
Christie, a U.S. attorney in New Jersey before he was elected, answered questions about the president's speech and the issue generally at a bill-signing in Trenton, the seat of the state's government - and he framed his answer partly in terms of his past job.
"Given my last position, that I was the first U.S attorney post 9/11 in New Jersey, I understand acutely the pain and sorrow and upset of the family members who lost loved ones that day at the hands of radical Muslim extremists," Christie said. "And their sensitivities and concerns have to be taken into account. Just because it's nearly nine years later, those sensitivities cannot and should not be ignored.
"On the other hand, we cannot paint all of Islam with that brush. ...We have to bring people together. And what offends me the most about all this, is that it's being used as a political football by both parties. And what disturbs me about the president's remarks is that he is now using it as a political football as well. I think the president of the United States should rise above that. And should not be using this as a political football, and I don't believe that it would be responsible of me to get involved and comment on this any further because it just put me in the same political arena as all of them."
Christie said he agrees that some degree of "deference" must be paid to victims' relatives, but added, "But it would be wrong to so overreact to that, that we paint Islam with a brush of radical Muslim extremists that just want to kill Americans because we are Americans. But beyond that ... I am not going to get into it, because I would be guilty of candidly what I think some Republicans are guilty of, and the president is now, the president is guilty of, of playing politics with this issue, and I simply am not going to do it."
"All people in our country suffer when those kind of things happen," he said.
It's a stunning departure from the national party line, delivered best by National Republican Senatorial Committee head Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) who said on Fox News Sunday that Obama's comments defending freedom of religion in the case of hte mosque show he is "disconnected" from voters around the country, and that it was the wrong place for a mosque to exist. Others have raised questions about the beliefs and funding of the imam involved in the project, and suggested that he has radical ties.
Christie also spoke at roughly the same time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement saying the mosque should be built elsewhere.
The New Jersey governor's perspective is also somewhat different than many Republicans without New York State ties on this issue, since the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns the Ground Zero site, and many Garden State residents were among those killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Christie has insisted he is not interested in a run for president and that it will never happen. Still, his remarks are certain to resonate well with the center.
"Chris Christie is going places," said Democratic startegist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked in New Jersey. "Being folksy on the national moment's emotional issue with a strident, non-partisan populism makes him the independents' politician of the day."