Evan Vucci, Associated Press
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.
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