Mel Evans, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Forget Springsteen, the Sopranos and Snooki. The hottest thing outta New Jersey is Gov. Chris Christie — at least politically.
In office just a year, he has become a GOP hero for his eagerness to slash spending and target Democratic-friendly unions in the midst of an economic crisis.
Fellow Republicans everywhere are highlighting the former federal prosecutor's get-tough approach as the prescription for addressing fiscal emergencies gripping all levels of government and rehabilitating a GOP image that was damaged during the bloated George W. Bush years.
As Christie himself has said: "As a party, it is put up or shut up time."
With President Barack Obama and Congress in the first week of a budget battle that will stretch into the spring, Christie was delivering a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington on Wednesday in which he planned to challenge Republicans and Democrats alike to follow his lead.
An emerging player on the national stage, Christie has become so beloved among conservatives for his efforts to shrink government and rein in spending that some Republicans are clamoring for him to run for the White House next year.
Christie insists he won't — at least in 2012 — and there are no signs that he will.
But, even without launching a bid, he's still part of the campaign conversation and putting his imprint on the race. And he could end up on the eventual GOP nominee's vice presidential short list.
His name came up frequently last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which more than 10,000 activists attended even though he didn't.
"Chris Christie has shown responsible spending cuts can be achieved even in a usually blue state like New Jersey," said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, one of several likely presidential candidates who have argued that the Christie model could — and should — be replicated across the country.
Pundit Ann Coulter elicited cheers in the audience when she said flatly, "If we don't run Chris Christie, Mitt Romney will be the nominee and we will lose." And Christie earned higher support in the conference's presidential preference poll than Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee, who both also skipped the gathering but are far better known.
"He didn't go seek the attention. He did big things and then went and talked about it," said Mike DuHaime, the lead strategist on Christie's campaign and an informal adviser to the governor. "He's completely turned Trenton upside down."
Not everything Christie is doing in New Jersey can be done at the federal level, but the governor argues that the philosophy can translate.
Elected in 2009 in the midst of recession, Christie was in the spotlight as he took over a Democratic-leaning state plagued by the nation's highest taxes, an $11 billion deficit and unemployment near 10 percent. He faced a constitutional balanced budget requirement and a Democratic Legislature, and he didn't shirk from either.
"Conservatives were looking for a strong leader who could take a stand on fiscal issues," said Henry Olsen, a vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The tea party rose up partly because of the belief that for a long time the Republicans did not follow through on their commitments to smaller government and lower spending. Then, Christie comes along and says: 'We're not going to duck it. We're going to deal with it.'"
The right swooned.
With bipartisan backing, Christie plugged the budget hole largely by cutting aid to schools, suspending property tax rebates and skipping a $3 billion payment to the state's pension system. He imposed a 2 percent cap on increases to local property taxes and fought frequently with the state's teachers and other public employee unions.
And he canceled the construction of a $9 billion-plus train tunnel to New York City because of overruns for which New Jersey would have been solely responsible. Then he challenged the $271 million bill the federal government says the state owes after scrapping the project.
The two biggest blemishes on his one-year record: New Jersey narrowly lost out on a $400 million federal education grant, apparently because of an error on the application, and Christie caught flak in December for vacationing out of state when a blizzard struck the East Coast.
He is facing another $11 billion deficit this year and the courts are weighing whether his education cuts are unconstitutional.
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