WASHINGTON — Forget Springsteen, the Sopranos and Snooki. The hottest thing outta New Jersey is Gov. Chris Christie — at least politically.
He's been in office just a year but fellow Republicans everywhere are highlighting the former federal prosecutor's get-tough approach to fighting runaway spending and taking on Democratic-friendly unions. Fans argue it's the right prescription for addressing fiscal emergencies at all levels of government and rehabilitating a party image damaged during bloated George W. Bush years.
"It's time to do the big things — the really big things," Christie said Wednesday, urging Republicans and Democrats alike to follow his lead in restoring fiscal responsibility to the budgetary process, addressing pension and health benefits and reforming education systems. He said state and federal governments are facing the same core issues — a decade or more of out-of-control spending and mounting debt.
"We are teetering on the edge of disaster," Christie said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, just blocks away from the White House and Capitol Hill where President Barack Obama and Congress were in the opening week of a budget battle.
He called that haggling irresponsible and dangerous, challenging both parties to deal with entitlement programs and confront hard truths. He said the Social Security retirement age is going to have to be raised, and Medicare and Medicaid must be overhauled because they will bankrupt the state and nation.
"If we're not honest about these things," he said, "we are on the path to ruin."
An emerging player on the national stage, Christie has become so beloved among conservatives for his approach that some Republicans are clamoring for him to run for the White House next year.
Christie insists he won't run in 2012.
"I'm not stupid. I see the opportunity. I see it. That's not the reason to run," Christie said, adding that a candidate must truly believe that he's ready to be president, and "I don't believe that about myself right now."
But, even without launching a bid, he's still part of the campaign conversation and is putting his imprint on the race. He could end up on the eventual GOP nominee's vice presidential short list.
Although he wasn't there, his name came up frequently last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, attended by more than 10,000 activists.
"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 arguing that the Christie model could — and should — be replicated across the country.
Pundit Ann Coulter elicited cheers in the audience when she said, "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.
While 2012 may not be in his sights, Christie is bolstering his national image. He had a major platform for Wednesday's speech, the same day the Republican Governors Association named him a vice chairman of policy.
Not everything Christie is doing in New Jersey can be done at the federal level. But he argues that the philosophy can translate — and urges Obama to adopt it.
He noted that days after he used the phrase in his state of the state speech, the president used "big things" in his State of the Union address to describe investments in high speed rail, broadband and other infrastructure. "That is the candy of American politics. Those are not the big things," Christie said.
Elected in 2009, Christie 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 shrink 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 AEI think tank. "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.1 comment on this story
Democrats argue he's not had the success that he's claimed.
"The 'big things' that he has actually done . have reduced the economic competitiveness of New Jersey in the long term," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the head of the Democratic Governors Association.
And the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which has backed GOP candidates and worked with tea party groups, assails Christie for what it calls creative budgeting that didn't cut spending and violates the state constitution.
Christie faces another $11 billion deficit this year, and the courts are weighing whether his education cuts are unconstitutional.