MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s entry into the 2012 presidential race could dramatically reshape what has become a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But Christie, who’s under pressure from party elders to run, hasn’t faced national scrutiny — and he could join other early favorites who burned out fast.
The budget-cutting Christie is the latest heartthrob of Republicans who have been looking for a more exciting candidate than Romney.
Perry jumped in to much fanfare only to sweat under the scrutiny his first national campaign brought. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann rallied restive conservatives long enough to win a key test vote in Iowa but just as quickly receded to the background.
Christie said in January he wasn’t “arrogant enough” to run for president. Now he is reconsidering in light of encouragement from GOP luminaries like Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush.
If he runs, Christie probably would be able to raise millions for a campaign, though his rivals are ahead. As a Republican governor of a Democratic mid-Atlantic state, he could appeal to those who like Romney’s business background but want more charisma.
If he does run, Christie would push a long list of second-tier candidates even further to the back of the pack. He would also face a national spotlight that’s much harsher than those on the state or local stage.
“The swimming pool looks a lot better until you jump right in. The water may not be quite as warm as you think,” Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, warned Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“The best thing to be is a potential candidate,” said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think anybody can stand up to that scrutiny without laying the groundwork for a long time before.”
Just ask Perry. Two months ago, Republicans were pushing him to run. He shot to the top of national polls after his announcement in mid-August. A few shaky debate performances and many attacks from Romney later, Perry has already begun to fade due in part to a bill he signed that allows illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities.
Perry aides point to the fact that he has been running for about six weeks, while Romney has been preparing his second presidential bid since the first one ended. But they acknowledge that starting later has made Perry’s path more difficult and say Christie could face similar problems.
“The scrutiny that will come on his ideological and fiscal policies and social policies will be magnified greatly because of the short time period,” said David Carney, Perry’s top strategist.
Christie favors some restrictions on gun rights, civil unions for gay couples and opposes abortion but described himself as “pro-choice” at the beginning of his political career.
That will provide plenty of fodder for Romney, whose campaign has moved steadily through repeated rounds of other candidates.
“The Romney campaign has been built to withstand all elements and endure every candidate scenario,” said Kevin Madden, a senior Romney aide in 2008 who now serves as an informal adviser. And a Christie entry could end up actually helping Romney.
“Everyone will aim at the perceived frontrunner,” said Galen. “It helps Romney because it will keep the pressure off of him for the next three to four weeks, and depending what happens with the calendar, Romney just has to gather himself and sprint to the finish.”
But top operatives there say they haven’t yet heard from Christie’s team, and the story is much the same in New Hampshire.
“Gov. Christie would make a compelling candidate for president, but there is no evidence whatsoever that he has reached out to top Republican officials and opinion leaders,” said Mike Dennehy, a top New Hampshire Republican strategist.