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Christie says he’ll back Romney

By Shira Schoenberg and Alex Katz
Globe Correspondents / October 12, 2011

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LEBANON, N.H. - Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey today endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in a hastily called press conference, hours before the candidates are set to meet in a debate at Dartmouth College.

With their wives Ann Romney and Mary Pat Christie sitting in front of them, Christie praised Romney’s experience in business and as governor of Massachusetts. Christie said President Obama is trying to divide America and to tell people “that the pie of America is only so big that if you want more we have to take it to others.”

“I know Mitt Romney believes the American pie can be grown bigger,” Christie said. “That it can be an infinite size because of the infinite nature of American ingenuity and effort and character.”

Romney called Christie an “American hero” who has “been battling to rein in the excesses of government in New Jersey.”

Christie last week decided that he would not launch a White House bid of his own, despite the urging of many in the Republican Party.

The endorsement is a major coup for Romney ahead of tonight’s debate, giving him the support of an emerging GOP icon as he tries to establish his position as his party’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination.

Christie, who has won praise from both the Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans, was recently the subject of an intense courtship by Republican donors and party elders to seek the nomination. The effort underscored Romney’s inability thus far to curry favor with a certain segment of the Republican Old Guard, despite trying to position himself as the consensus establishment candidate.

The New Jersey governor last week said “now is not my time” to seek the presidency. Since that announcement, several of his key financial backers have pledged their allegiance to Romney. His endorsement today is expected to accelerate that trend.

The endorsement was kept unusually quiet by the campaign, which announced the 3 p.m. press conference with a “special guest” just two hours in advance. Even campaign volunteers did not know who the guest would be until they arrived. Yet after Fox News broke the story, the room at the Courtyard Marriott hotel was packed with media and supporters, including a number of Dartmouth College students who had volunteered with Romney’s campaign.

Ray Sullivan, spokesman for Romney rival Rick Perry, declined to criticize Christie’s choice. “Governor Perry has the utmost respect for Governor Christie and looks forward to his help unseating President Obama next year,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Until then, Governor Perry will continue traveling the country talking about job creation and getting America working again.”

The endorsement was in the making for days, but the groundwork was laid months ago. Romney and Christie met early in Romney’s candidacy at Drumthwacket, the official residence of the New Jersey governor. Since then, they remained in conversations over the phone, according to Romney advisers.

After Christie ruled out a presidential run of his own, Romney’s campaign began reaching out to Christie. The two spoke, and scheduled a lunch meeting Saturday afternoon at Christie’s personal home in Mendon, N.J. Romney and his wife, Ann, flew down that day and met with Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, and two of their four children.

Christie told Romney he was prepared to endorse him, but the news was kept under wraps until today. Christie’s likely to be used in a variety of settings, according to Romney advisers, including as a sounding board for policy ideas as well as a prominent attack dog – a role Christie already began playing today.

“We would love to have him as a high profile surrogate,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser. “He is a sitting governor, so we understand his time is limited. But to the extent he can give any time to us, we’ll be thrilled to take it.” Following the press conference, Christie went to tape an interview with NBC. Tonight, he’s scheduled to appear on the show of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity.

Shira Schoenberg, who reported from Lebanon, N.H., can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Alex Katz reported from Washington, D.C. Matt Viser of the Globe staff also contributed to this report.

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