Tough-Talking N.J. Gov. Chris Christie Takes Center Stage at RNC

Chris Christie's keynote speech marks the pinnacle — so far — of a blustery rise. Vows to "be natural and be myself."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knows the power of stump-speech theatrics.

From his blustery attacks on teachers unions to his verbal pummeling of gadflies, Christie’s confrontational podium appearances — cultivated on a popular YouTube channel — have fueled his rise to national fame.

He combines populist anger with the razor-sharp timing of a conservative comedian, lambasting New Jersey's powerful public teachers union, dismissing his critics and upbraiding hecklers. He’s called a Navy SEAL veteran an “idiot,” challenged Warren Buffett to "write a check and shut up" and ordered sunbathers to "get the hell off the beach" as a storm approached. And he’s managed to do it while maintaining a high public approval rating, no small feat in a state that is largely Democratic, including the legislature with which he relentlessly battles.

On Tuesday, with millions of people watching, Christie, 49, will deliver the biggest speech of his career, a 20-minute keynote address at the Republican National Convention. His role is to use his Jersey-guy energy to fire up Romney supporters while appealing to the segment of independent voters that will likely decide the presidential election.

“He does a very good job of appealing to the (Republican) base and to those who are truly undecided and considering voting for Romney,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I think the way he’ll do that (at the convention) will be through the New Jersey story of taking on entrenched special interests and intransigent Democrats to reform the system in a way that the public understands needs to be reformed.”

Christie's convention speech is expected to be vigorous and impassioned, but not quite so much as his speeches back home.

“He doesn’t need an off-the-cuff YouTube moment in order to connect with the convention body or the television audience. He will be brash, he will be strong willed and he will present his case. There isn’t going to be a ‘gasp’ moment, but he doesn’t need to do that in order to hit a home run. He’s a very disciplined politician and I’m sure he’ll be disciplined in his speech.”

Christie hasn't offered many hints at what he'll say. But he's made it clear that he won't change his style.

On Tuesday morning, Christie told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that he will stick to his signature style and may stray a little from the teleprompter during his keynote address. According to a "Morning Joe" transcript, Christie pledged to "be natural and be myself."

Christie said when the keynote rolls around he's "going to be like that horse in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby."

"I'm going to be banging up against that gate waiting to get out here and do it." 

Christie got to work soon after arriving in Florida this week. On a tour of state delegates' gatherings, he reprised his "get the hell off the beach" comment as Isaac stormed toward New Orleans and called California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown "an old retread." He also derided President Obama as "nothing more than a Chicago ward politician," according to the Los Angeles Times.

All of that was a mere prelude to Tuesday night.

Christie’s headlining role at the convention marks the pinnacle — so far — of a career that wasn’t always very promising.

A native of the northern New Jersey suburbs, Christie started out as a corporate lawyer and got into politics with help from a top Republican consultant, William Palatucci. Christie did some legal work for the campaign of President George H.W. Bush, then ran for the state senate and lost. Not long after, he was elected to the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders. While he was in office, he tried and failed to make the jump to state Assembly, then lost his bid for re-election to the county board.

He returned to practicing law and became a prodigious fundraiser for President George W. Bush. After Bush was elected in 2000, he nominated Christie to be New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney, despite his lack of prosecutorial experience.

Christie proved his many doubters wrong. He built a reputation as a modern-day Eliot Ness, going after corrupt public officials of all sizes and types. In six years, he won 130 corruption convictions, some of which reached into the state’s highest offices. He took down Gov. James McGreevey and Newark Mayor Sharpe James, both Democrats, but he sent a lot of Republicans to jail, too. Critics — defense lawyers, Democratic politicians, and others charged with breaking the law — accused him of using bullying tactics. He also ran afoul of the U.S. Justice Department for awarding no-bid contracts to friends and political allies but emerged from the allegations largely unscathed.

A few weeks after leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office in 2008, Christie announced his bid for governor. The following year, he won the GOP primary as the race’s moderate, then upset billionaire Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine.

Inheriting one of the country’s largest state budget deficits, Christie slashed state aid to cities, capped local property taxes and targeted labor unions, whom he blamed for hoarding health and salary benefits.

His preferred mode of communication with the public was the town hall meeting, which his staff videotaped and uploaded to his YouTube page.

The videos, particularly those in which he lashed back at those who stood to criticize him, tapped into conservatives’ anger at what they saw as bloated government. Critics complained that his behavior was more befitting "Jersey Shore" than the governor’s office. At one low point, Christie went after a heckler at the shore, yelling, calling him "a real big shot." But the videos became viral hits, and Republican governors regularly called for advice.

Christie embraces the controversy and has even spoofed himself in another popular YouTube video.

He has stumped for candidates around the country and was pushed to run for president. When he declined and endorsed Romney, he ended up on a short list of Romney's possible running mates. Christie didn’t get the nod — he says now that he didn’t want it — but gladly accepted Romney’s invitation to give the convention keynote speech.

Christie is in many ways the opposite of Romney, who does not like to speak off the cuff. Christie speaks about his work in simple terms, as if governing was as easy as saying no to the things that aren’t right.

One phrase Christie often uses back home but will probably not utter on Tuesday night is "Jersey comeback." Critics say that's because the comeback is a myth: New Jersey's unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation. PolitiFact has scrutinized Christie's record and found that the "comeback" claim doesn't entirely ring true.

But one thing is true about Chris Christie: he has made a career of surprising those who underestimate him. That's a record he holds dearly as he climbs to his party's next big stage.

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