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Personalities and politics | Joan Vennochi

A star on the GOP stage

October 28, 2010

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BEYOND SNOOKI and “Jersey Shore,’’ Governor Chris Christie is New Jersey’s newest and biggest attraction.

Hefty, rumpled, and blunt, Christie rocked the house at a Melrose rally last weekend for Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker. His appearance raises the question: does a politician need Mitt Romney’s permanent-press hair and trim good looks to be a serious presidential contender?

Not on Romney’s home turf.

During a Q&A session, someone asked if Christie — a long shot candidate for governor just last fall — would run for president in 2012. Before he could answer, rally-goers wildly roared their approval — even more wildly than when Christie told them the best day of his week was “when the Yankees lost the other night.’’

To the White House query, Christie replied, “You are extremely lucky that Mrs. Christie is in New Jersey. Being the wife of a candidate for governor is tough enough. We just got elected last year.’’

“We believe in you,’’ someone shouted out, to which he shouted back: “But so do the people of New Jersey. They just voted for me less than a year ago to clean up our state that was broken and failing. I’m not leaving New Jersey until we fulfill that hope.’’

When it comes to beating Governor Deval Patrick, the Baker campaign believes deeply in the basic Christie narrative. As Christie reminded the crowd: “A year ago right now, I was in a three-person race for governor against a Democratic incumbent in a blue state . . . The polls said it was razor close . . . I am here in Massachusetts . . . because it is time, ladies and gentlemen, to close the deal.’’

When Christie closed his deal in New Jersey, he became the first Republican to win a statewide election in that state in 12 years. Now he’s attracting national media attention for his skill in riding the wave of voter resentment that put him in office and continues to drive the midterm election cycle.

But — ideology aside, for the moment — his political appeal goes beyond that. Christie has what other politicians desperately seek: authenticity.

Watching him in action was a lesson in the power of charisma — and a reminder that it doesn’t always have to come in a package that looks like Senator Scott Brown or like the fit but ever-evolving Romney.

“He’s definitely a star on the GOP national stage,’’ said Republican consultant Todd Domke, of the New Jersey governor. “He’s no less appealing because he’s a big guy. In fact, it sort of goes with his everyman persona. He is not out bicycling with John Kerry and Scott Brown. He’s busy cutting the fat out of state government.’’

Fiscal conservatives adore Christie’s tough-guy attitude toward spending. He killed a Hudson River tunnel project to double commuter rail service because he said New Jersey can’t afford it. It’s the opposite of the Big Dig financing plan that Baker came up with on behalf of a Massachusetts Republican governor. Christie also doesn’t carry baggage like “Romneycare,’’ the derisive label opponents hang on the Massachusetts health care reform law that passed with Romney’s blessing.

Christie delighted the Massachusetts crowd with the story of how he vetoed the New Jersey state budget until he got the cuts he wanted and then called the state legislature into emergency session before the July 4 weekend to push through a 2 percent cap in annual increases of property taxes. As he put it, “They didn’t pass that thing because of my charm and good looks.’’

“Going Jersey,’’ Christie-style, also has its dark side. Christie called the head of the state’s teachers union a “greedy thug’’ who uses children as “drug mules’’; in response, she describes him as a “bully’’ and a “liar.’’

As governor, Christie must deliver on a wide range of promises. He’s a novice on the national political scene, and Democrats and other ambitious Republicans will be happy to exploit the warts and weaknesses that are sure to appear.

Meanwhile, poor Romney. He’s smarter than Sarah Palin and better looking than Christie. He has the best hair in the field and the lead in the polls. But can he ever nail the Snooki vote?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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