Poor Mitt Romney. Every time he's ready to assume the mantle of frontrunner in a settled if uninspiring 2012 GOP field, he's got to fight one more alluring phantom rival. Last time it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who galloped into the race last month and quickly fell off his horse. Romney smiled calmly through Perry's three abysmal debate performances. You could see him thinking, "I've got this."
Now Romney's being taunted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who left the door open to entering the 2012 race at his Reagan Presidential Library address on Tuesday night. But Sarah Palin took to Fox the very same night to insist she still might run too. The comparison should wake Christie up to the fact that his public drama is getting close to seeming self-indulgent, not statesmanlike – even a little Palin-like, as the former Alaska governor milks questions about her intent to run for dollars and glory. Christie has to make a decision and stop flirting.
Steve Kornacki lays out the basics of Christie's Simi Valley star turn. He made a fairly boring speech explaining why the country needs a national dose of what he's done in New Jersey, and took a few swipes at President Obama. But he really came alive when a woman essentially begged Christie to enter the race. "I say this from the bottom of my heart, for my daughter who's here and my grandchildren at home: I know New Jersey needs you, but I implore you…We can't wait another four years (applause). I really implore you as a citizen of this country to reconsider."
It was a great opening, for a man enjoying the devotion but determined not to run, to thank her and tell her he was sticking to his decision. But Christie didn't.
He gave a long rambling answer, thanking her for her "heartfelt message" and making sure his audience knows he's hearing a lot of similar messages from Republicans. But he concluded with: "My answer to you is just this - I thank you for what you're saying. I take it in. I'm listening, and I feel it too."
Feel what? That the country urgently needs him, so he's reconsidering? Or that the country urgently needs him, but he's still not going to do it? The door remains open. Christie is loving this.
Meanwhile, over on Fox, Sarah Palin told Greta von Susteren she's still thinking about her options too. "I'm going to keep repeating though, Greta, through my process of decision-making with my family and with my close friends as to whether I should throw my name in the hat for the GOP nomination or not for 2012: Is a title worth it? Does a title shackle a person? Are they -- someone like me, maverick, you know, I do go rogue, and I call it like I see it, and I don't mind stirring it up… Is a title and is a campaign too shackling? Does that prohibit me from being out there, out of the box, not allowing handlers to shape me?"
Clearly Palin isn't running. First of all, the "title" of president may well be shackling, as in you have to think before you open your mouth; it's also the most powerful position in the world. If she wanted it, she wouldn't make it sound like a big inconvenience. Plus, whether she wants it or not, the tease has gone too far. Even Fox has written her off; poor Roger Ailes is hot for Christie. It's pretty clear she's enjoying being mavericky and making millions of dollars; she doesn't have the discipline to run, let alone lead.
Does Christie? Like Perry before him, he would learn that the glow of the cameras gets hot when you're a national candidate. Plus, the GOP has tied itself to the Tea Party, which is now hugely unpopular with most American voters; even Christie could find he's not pure enough for them. He wouldn't prosecute illegal immigration as a U.S. attorney. As governor, he appointed a Muslim judge. He came out strongly against the demagoging of the Ground Zero mosque. He opposed the knuckleheaded GOP plan to hold disaster aid hostage to budget cuts.
People seem to like Christie's regular guy shtick, which is a sharp contrast to Romney's friendly CEO shtick. Christie's got the common touch. Unfortunately, he bolsters his working class credibility by bashing teachers and public employee unions, as though they're the "big government" enemy that destroyed our economy. A lot of white workers who voted Republican, in New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin, are waking up to their regular-guy governors' anti-labor agenda; Christie's Jersey-guy populism may not hide his anti-populist politics in a national race.
Besides: This regular guy is beloved by plutocrats. David Koch wants him to run; Home Depot CEO Ken Langone is introducing him to wealthy GOP donors; he's getting attention from hedge fund managers like Daniel Loeb and other former Wall Street Obama supporters, who got their feelings hurt when the president talked about "fat cats" while still letting them loot the economy.
But I'm not Christie's target demographic. He could well have more appeal than any of his rivals. If he wants to give it a shot, he should do it now, or shut the door. He's starting to look like he's putting his own good time before the interests of his party or his country.
I talked about Christie and Palin on MSNBC's Hardball today: