NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Gov. Chris Christie arrived at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday at one of the most difficult moments of his political career: The investigations into his administration's mammoth traffic jam continue, his poll numbers have plunged, and the socially conservative GOP voters who dominate this gathering have always been his biggest hurdle in a potential quest for the presidency.
But with surprisingly expansive comments on his opposition to abortion, the New Jersey governor drew a warm reception before a group that did not even invite him last year, a slight ascribed to organizers' criticism of his conservative credentials.
Feisty and upbeat, he also touted his challenges to New Jersey public employee unions, while lavishing praise on a number of his potential rivals — a demonstration of his desire to be a good soldier for the party as the new head of the Republican Governor's Assn.
Scorning leaders in Washington who "can't stop talking," Christie praised Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for standing up for collective bargaining reform, Ohio Gov. John Kasich for lowering taxes and boosting employment, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder for making his state, the home of the United Auto Workers, a right-to-work state.
"Governors are about getting things done," said Christie, who urged his fellow Republicans to be more specific about what they are for rather than what they are against. "Governors are about making things work and keeping government out of people's lives as much as they can."
But even with a standing ovation as he opened and polite applause throughout his speech, Christie's steep climb back to presidential viability was evident in interviews with attendees. Wilma Hicks, a retired secretary from Shreveport, La., said she could not get past his administration's involvement in the multiday closure of several lanes approaching the George Washington Bridge in an apparent case of political payback.
"I just thought that was terrible, and I don't think he was telling the truth about not knowing, and that lessened my opinion of him," said Hicks, who had just cast her vote for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in CPAC's presidential straw poll, the results of which will be tallied Saturday.
"He really does give a good presentation — today, it was really good," she said of Christie's speech. "But I wouldn't have faith in him."
William Travascio, a 21-year-old student, said he was pleased to see Christie invited, and "glad there was a big outpouring of support for him." But he found the New Jersey governor's speech underwhelming.
"I was looking for something more powerful — something more Chris Christie-ish," Travascio said. "When you see him on TV speaking to people in New Jersey, he's very bold. Very grandiose. I was expecting him to attack the president more. And maybe to attack the party a little bit."
The conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union at a resort hotel on the Potomac River outside Washington is the largest annual gathering of conservatives each year. Thousands of attendees flocked here at a time when the Republican Party is fractured policy-wise and yet poised to potentially control both houses of Congress if current trends persist through the November election.
For the potential White House aspirants speaking during the three-day session, the event is a key proving ground and an opportunity to test campaign messaging. Thursday marked Christie's first major speech on a national stage since the bridge scandal erupted in January.
The would-be contenders speaking Thursday — including Christie, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the tea party darling who has bedeviled the Republican establishment — all offered different prescriptions for the party to broaden its appeal, some in great detail and others in broad outlines.
Cruz opened the event with a familiar call for conservatives to hold true to their principles.
"You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing," Cruz said, then referred to Republican presidential nominees who lost to Democrats. "All of us remember President Dole and President McCain and President Romney. Those are good men. They are decent men. But when you don't stand and draw a clear distinction, when you don't stand for principle, Democrats celebrate."
In a subtle contrast to Cruz, Ryan said there was a fine line "between being pragmatic and being unprincipled."
"Let the other party be the party of personalities. We will be the party of ideas," he said.
Ryan acknowledged divisions within the Republican ranks, but said he saw it only as "creative tension" and a healthy debate. "It's messy. It's noisy. It's a little uncomfortable," he said. "But the center of gravity is shifting."
Christie emphasized the importance of the GOP finding a more compelling message. "We don't get to govern if we don't win," he said. "Let us come out here resolved to not only stand for our principles, but let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again. That's what I intend to do for the next year, and I hope you'll join me."
He also made an effort to solidify his own credentials within the social conservative wing of the party. He spoke more than any other 2016 contender about his opposition to abortion: "They said it could never be done; now twice — twice, for the first time since Roe vs. Wade — New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor."
Leslie Hiner of Indianapolis said Christie was right about needing to win in order to govern. But she said it was Cruz who stood out in the field, by speaking "clearly, convincingly, with authority" — especially about the importance of holding true to conservative principles.
"You can't govern effectively unless you were elected honestly," she said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times