WASHINGTON — It sounded like a speech a presidential candidate would make, full of patriotism and challenges to the nation.
It felt like one, given the audience was a revered conservative institution of the Republican Party, a key group for hopefuls to court. And it looked like one, given it was widely anticipated by GOP leaders and the room was packed with national media.
But Gov. Chris Christie keeps saying he isn’t running for president — on Wednesday remarking he’d have to “commit suicide” to convince people he’s not interested in the job.
Whatever the ultimate goal of the speech before the American Enterprise Institute, Christie didn’t seem to hurt his growing national stature, challenging both parties to take on “big things” such as raising the Social Security retirement age and overhauling federal entitlement programs.
“It is extraordinarily important that those of us who believe our country is on the wrong track to begin the conversation, and for New Jersey’s sake to continue the conversation, about how we fix the problems that ail our states and our country in a direct and blunt way,” Christie said.
The governor also signaled he intends to have his voice heard on national issues.
“I fear that after watching how things are going over the last month or two that we’re missing a historic opportunity, and I will not be someone who will participate in silently missing that opportunity,” he said.
Christie, who highlighted the “big things” he began discussing in his State of the State speech, peppered in new commentary on the state of the nation and criticism for both parties.
“I’m fighting now because now is the time that matters most for New Jersey’s future and America’s future,” Christie said. “We are teetering on the edge of disaster.”
Christie compared his fight to overhaul pension and health care benefits for public workers with a need to reform federal entitlement programs. “Pension and benefits are the equivalent of entitlements at the national level,” he said.
Christie said the Social Security retirement age should be raised and Medicaid drastically overhauled, adding that politicians long feared tackling the “third rail of politics.”
“Oh, I just said that and I’m still standing here. I didn’t vaporize,” Christie said, drawing laughter from the room.
Christie had harsh criticism for President Obama, mocking proposals in the State of the Union address such as high-speed rails and Internet access as “the candy of American politics.”
He described a “game” being played between Obama and Congressional Republicans in which each side was waiting for the other to make the first move on comprehensive reform.
“The game being played down here is irresponsible and dangerous,” Christie said. “These are hard things to do and they’re not impossible things to do.”
Christie added that he had hoped the president would have delivered a bolder State of the Union address. Christie joked that he feared Obama would “cement re-election” during the speech as he rode a wave of momentum after the Arizona speech.
“I was looking for my president to stand up and challenge me, to say to me and everyone else in the country, ‘Now is the time to fix the problems and I’m going to lead you there.’ It was a disappointment that he didn’t,” Christie said.
Christie, who campaigned for Republican congressional candidates last fall, said it is time for them “to put up or shut up.” He warned that if those he helped elect don’t make the tough decisions, the next time they see him in their district will be with his “arm around their primary opponent.”
While the speech brought him more national attention, Christie was quick to bat down speculation that he is eyeing national office. He acknowledged “seeing the opportunity” for a presidential run, but said his wife Mary Pat would “kill” him.
“I threatened to commit suicide, I did,” he joked. “I said, ‘What short of suicide do I have to do to convince people I’m not running?’ Apparently, I actually have to commit suicide.”
Given his repeated denials, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said it would take a draft to make him the nominee, an unlikely move in modern times.
“Notice he didn’t rule out taking the VP spot on the GOP ticket, if asked by the nominee,” Sabato said. “But there will be plenty of competition for that post.”
Signaling he’s not courting a presidential endorsement, Christie skipped last week’s Conservative Political Action Committee convention, a cattle call for GOP hopefuls. But he still tied for third in its presidential straw poll.
“You can see why Republicans are drawn to him,” Sabato, who watched Wednesday’s speech online, said. “Christie has an earthy, blunt way of saying what most Republicans feel about government, unions, deficits and other subjects. There is a boyish excitement to his presentation, an electricity that I found missing at many of the CPAC speeches given by some of the presidential candidates.”
Christie’s rumored national aspirations weren’t missed on New Jersey Democrats. The state party posted a YouTube video during Christie’s speech, juxtaposing the governor’s call that “it’s time to do the big things” with an image asking “Big things? Like looking for his next job?”