Chris Christie, 49, New Jersey’s talented first-term Republican governor, has been charming Israel this week. “Jersey to Jerusalem,” he calls it. Two days ago, he visited the Western Wall. Yesterday, he laid a wreath at Yad Vashem. “This is my first visit abroad as governor,” he told Prime Minister Netanyahu, according to his office, “and there was never any question of where we could come first”—a dig at President Obama, who is likely to go a full term without visiting Israel. (Bibi added to the charm offensive: “New Jersey and Israel are very similar: our area is about the same, and also our number of inhabitants,” he said, “but the residents of New Jersey have better neighbors.”)
The trip highlights a perhaps underrated aspect of Christie’s broader appeal: namely, that this boisterous, unabashedly ethnic (he frequently makes reference to his Sicilian mother), socially moderate but strongly pro-Israel governor—of New Jersey—might be a particular favorite of Republican Jews, something which could come into play both this year, as the Republican nominee chooses a running mate, and potentially in three or four years, should Obama win re-election. A former U.S. attorney, he’s like Rudy Giuliani, only likable. And we know that conservative Jews loved Rudy.
“Governor Christie is a remarkable individual,” said Cheryl Halpern, a former chairwoman and current board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, as well as a New Jerseyite. “What he said to AIPAC [at a February gathering]: the comment that Americans and Israelis both believe in free enterprise, accountability, transparency, and in rewarding excellence; that we both believe in the rule of law and limits on the power of the state; that we both believe in peace through strength—these are statements that are going to resonate very positively within the pro-Israel Jewish community, in New Jersey or anywhere else in the country.” Halpern, who has known Christie for at least a decade and considers herself a friend of his and his wife’s, added, “He stands by his words.”
The bill for Christie’s flight and some of his trip is being footed by the RJC itself. No fewer than nine RJC board-members* donated to Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial campaign, according to public records. And the most generous of these was hedge fund magnate Paul Singer—who is in Israel with Christie. Singer is backing frontrunner Mitt Romney, as is Christie. But Singer endorsed Romney only one day after Christie, whom Singer had been trying to draft, made clear he wouldn’t run.
Jennifer Rubin, one of the most influential conservative pro-Israel journalists, has praised Christie for some time. At the RJC candidates’ forum last year, she raved, “The problem with inviting Christie to today’s RJC forum is that he is so much better, as a candidate and a speaker, than the actual candidates.” In February, she noted that his address to an AIPAC confab in February “suggests that conservative hawks should be very glad (in addition to agreement his domestic views and admiration for his record of accomplishments governor) to see him on the presidential ticket.”
It’s impossible, of course, not to bring the election into this. “I’m here because this is a place of enormous significance in the world,” Christie told the AP. But as the AP’s lead put it, it’s a trip “that may boost the rising Republican star’s foreign policy credentials ahead of November’s presidential election.” And Christie did take an opportunity to attack Obama on Israel, telling the Jerusalem Post, “Our partnership with Israel is not based on generosity but because they have earned our support. Rather than use cute words and phrases, our commitment to Israel should be unambiguous and easily understood.” Christie endorsed Romney in October—decades ago by the standards of this primary season—and is understandably prominent in the conversation both of potential running mates and potential 2016 nominees. While last year Christie quipped, “The person that picked me for vice president would have to be sedated,” he has not ruled it out.
“I certainly think it’s premature to make any assumptions,” said Halpern. “I would anticipate that he would be on the short list for Gov. Romney. I do think that some of the other individuals—Gov. Martinez from New Mexico, certainly Marco Rubio—are individuals that should be considered as well.”
Halpern noted that there is nothing novel in a New Jersey governor officially visiting Israel—in fact, Christie is the sixth consecutive one to do so. There are ample trade ties between the state and the country; Christie also met with the Teva Pharmaceutical CEO to discuss expanding the generic drug manufacturer’s operation to west of the Hudson River.
And, as President Peres said after meeting Christie this week, “For us New Jersey is like New York without the same fanfare but with the same connections for Israelis and the Jewish people.”
The feeling might be mutual.
* The board-members are: Ken Bialkin, Michael D. Epstein, Sam Fox, Marc Goldman, Eliot Lauer, Morris Offit, Richard Sambol, Mel Sembler, and Singer.
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Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.