NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Before the bridge scandal unfolded in New Jersey, Chris Christie's biggest hurdle on the path to the 2016 Republican presidential nomination was his difficulty winning over core conservatives — the kind of activists who gathered here Thursday and who will dominate the early presidential contests.
The New Jersey governor was not even invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference last year because his record was viewed as insufficiently conservative. But in his address at this year's gathering, Christie drew a warm response by playing to his strengths with this crowd.
He touted his efforts to take on public employee unions in New Jersey and to lower state spending. He highlighted his stance as an anti-abortion governor in a blue state. And showing himself to be a good soldier for the party, he lavished praise on a number of his potential rivals as the leader of the Republican Governors 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, Christie noted -- a right-to-work state.
"Governors are about getting things done," said Christie, who drew a standing ovation (as most of the speakers did) as well as polite applause throughout his speech. "Governors are about making things work and keeping government out of people's lives as much as they can."
In a striking effort to solidify his own credentials within the GOP's social conservative wing, Christie spoke more expansively than any of the other potential 2016 contenders 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."
Noting that he could not recall the last time Democrats had asked an opponent of abortion rights to speak at their convention, he urged Republicans to challenge Democratic positioning on the issue: "They're the party of intolerance, not us," Christie said. "We have to take these guys on directly. … We are not going to put up any longer with them defining who we are."
"When we say we're pro-life — and that we're proudly pro-life — that doesn't mean that we're pro-life just when that human being is in the womb," he continued. "We need to be pro-life when they leave the womb as well, for every step of their lives. … It means that we have to be in favor of a society that creates opportunity and jobs for them, not one that has the government control what is good or fair in our society."
The annual Conservative Political Action Conference occurs as Republicans are fractured policywise and yet poised to potentially control both houses of Congress if current trends continue through the November election.
Joining Christie on the opening day speaking roster were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the tea party darling who has bedeviled the Republican establishment by pushing his colleagues to unpopular stances on issues such as the government shutdown.
Christie and his fellow contenders all won applause from the audience by challenging what they described as weak leadership on the part of the Obama administration around the world.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will speak on Friday. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will close out the conference Saturday night, after organizers hold a straw poll to measure the support of attendees for the potential 2016 candidates.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday night showed the absence of a clear presidential favorite on the Republican side, and the lack of electricity for any of the candidates was palpable on Thursday.
The new poll showed that three in 10 Republicans said they would not vote for Christie if he were to run for president. About 9% of Republicans said they would definitely vote for Christie, 50% said they would consider it and 11% had no opinion.
While the survey did not test Republicans against one another, it charted which candidates had the most loyal supporters. At this point, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who has said he will not run again, had the firmest support with 34% of Republicans saying they would definitely support him — a figure that rose slightly to 37% among conservative Republicans.
The next strongest candidates in the Republican field were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Huckabee, both supported by 15% of Republicans.