FLEMINGTON, N.J. — In a short speech at the sweltering, cramped headquarters of the Hunterdon County GOP Tuesday afternoon, Chris Christie endorsed his party's outspoken far-right senate candidate, Steve Lonegan — and tried to assure his conservative base that he hasn't forgotten about them.
"Steve as usual ran the type of spirited, principled campaign that he has been known for his entire career in the primary, and Republican voters responded exactly as you expected they would," Christie said. "I am proud to have him as our candidate for the senate."
Christie, intent on achieving a landslide reelection this year that his advisers hope will launch him into the top tier of 2016 presidential contenders, has done little to maintain conservative enthusiasm in recent months. He has picked public fights with Rand Paul and his libertarian followers, pursued an ostentatious political flirtation with President Obama, and, just this week, signed a bill banning "conversion therapy" for gay minors.
The moderate approach led many observers to assume any endorsement Christie offered Lonegan — a tea party-backed libertarian with a history of brash rhetoric and virtually no chance of winning — would come in the form of a lukewarm written statement.
But standing next to the senate nominee on stage Tuesday, Christie tried to convince the conservative faithful that he wasn't ashamed of the nominee.
"There's been a lot more attention to this than I thought there would be," Christie said. "There was in fact one reporter who showed up to my earlier event… and said, 'What kind of energy are you gonna have for your endorsement of Mayor Lonegan?' I said, 'Well, it's kind of early at noon to ask what my energy's gonna be at 4:15, but my energy is just fine."
Christie long ago learned the benefits of picking on the press, and the anecdote drew a few chuckles from the crowd before eventually evolving into applause. He then promised Lonegan would have his full support.
"Let me say this: This will not be the only time that Steve Lonegan and I are together between now and October 16. We're gonna help him raise money... The apparatus of the Republican Party is gonna be behind Steve Lonegan between now and October 16 to help bring us to victory," he said.
For Christie, who is widely assumed to have his eye on the White House, a firm embrace of his party's nominee makes sense. This endorsement gives him the ability to assert partisan loyalty in the 2016 primaries, making up for any marginal support he loses from New Jersey Democrats in his gubernatorial reelection bid.
But after the event ended and the rallygoers swarmed to the exits of the non-air-conditioned venue, some remained unconvinced of Christie's convictions.
One voter, who declined to be named for fear that his critical remarks would result in New Jersey officials confiscating his guns, complained about Christie "wanting to be friends with Obama" and compromising too much with Democratic lawmakers.
"It was a good decision for him [to endorse Lonegan in person], but whether it's truthful or not, who knows?" he said.