Out of state, but not out of mind, says Christie

Gov. Christie joking with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant while on a tour through Mississippi and Louisiana this month to raise money for fellow Republicans. (ROGELIO V. SOLIS / AP)

BELMAR, N.J. - On Friday, Gov. Christie greeted beachgoers on a familiar Jersey Shore boardwalk. By next week, he will be in Florida, South Carolina, and New Hampshire; the week after that, it's back to New Hampshire, Iowa, and Utah.

The Republican governor, eyeing a 2016 presidential campaign, has traveled out of state on at least 67 of the first 151 days of the year, according to a review of public schedules released by his office and other information.

That figure encompasses a variety of travel, from his three-day trade mission to the United Kingdom to visits to early presidential primary states to numerous trips to nearby New York, including for fund-raisers, national television interviews, and sports games. Christie's office did not respond to inquiries about the number of his travel days.

On some of those days, the governor also made appearances in New Jersey. After holding his first New Hampshire town-hall meeting in April, he zipped back to Atlantic City in time to mark the opening of a Bass Pro Shops.

Another day that month, after fielding questions from New Jerseyans at a town-hall meeting in Essex County, Christie was off to Boston for a private fund-raising event for his political action committee.

His frequent travel has stirred some criticism. "He needs to be back here with a plan on what we're going to do to fix this place, 'cause you can't fix it when you're not here," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), told reporters last month as he accused Christie of inattention to New Jersey's economy. Through a spokesman, Sweeney declined to comment for this article.

Christie has maintained that he focuses on his "day job," even while he's away.

"It's not like the old days, where you had to get the Pony Express to take a note to the governor about what's going on," he said on NJ 101.5 last week. "I carry this cellphone with me everywhere. . . . I'm never out of touch. I'm never off duty."

Christie's approval among New Jersey voters has dropped. A Monmouth University Poll released this month found his approval rating was 35 percent among the state's registered voters, down from 47 percent in February.

"It's been quite clear over the past few months that the drop in his approval ratings is directly tied to a growing sense that he's not on the job here in New Jersey," said Patrick Murray, the poll director. "We see a growing spike of the number of people in polls who say he's putting his own political ambitions ahead of the people of New Jersey."

On his radio show, Christie, who has yet to officially enter the presidential race, rejected the term campaigning to describe his trips. "Traveling," he said.

While on the road, Christie has talked up New Jersey issues through social media. Earlier this month, as President Obama visited Camden, Christie tweeted about his involvement in the city - on a day he was giving a foreign-policy speech in New Hampshire.

When winter weather struck in February, Christie, then in London, tweeted that he had authorized a delayed opening for nonessential state employees.

His office also has issued announcements on days when he is out of state that he has signed or vetoed legislation.

Christie has professed his commitment to New Jersey during recent town-hall meetings in the state, though the meetings, which he began after his February budget address, have not kept pace with his promise that they would be held weekly through June.

The governor's approval rating, which peaked at 70 percent in the Monmouth poll after Hurricane Sandy, slid after the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal in January 2014 but stabilized after a few months, Murray said.

The ratings then fell again last fall, and "they haven't plateaued yet," Murray said. The recent bridge-scandal indictments haven't helped, he said.

Two other Republican governors who may run for president also have seen approval slides at home. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's approval rating in the Marquette Law School Poll was 41 percent in April, down from 49 percent in October. It was the first time in three years that Walker's approval had dropped below 46 percent in the poll.

In Walker's case, "I think the travel is only a modest part of it," said poll director Charles Franklin, who said the governor's new budget represented the bigger reason for the decline.

Where the travel has hurt Walker is that "he wasn't here to defend" budget proposals, including a cut to K-12 education funding, Franklin said.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's approval ratings also have fallen among state voters, netting a 31.8 percent positive job-performance rating in a Southern Media & Opinion Research Poll released earlier this month. In December, he had a 40.9 percent positive job rating in the poll.

In a presidential campaign, weakening approval at home is "an annoyance," said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist who was a longtime adviser to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "No one's going to make their final decision on that."

While attacks on out-of-state travels are predictable, the demands of a presidential campaign trail can complicate a governor's path, Carney said.

Unlike members of Congress or former governors, when turmoil arises, "as a governor, you have to be present," Carney said. That can mean skipping key campaign events to tend to troubles at home - in Perry's case, the Texas wildfires in 2011.

Returning Friday to Belmar, a Shore town battered by Sandy, Christie invoked the image of a hands-on, pragmatic leader that had earned him praise after the October 2012 storm.

"The destruction was not Democrat destruction or Republican destruction, it was New Jersey destruction," Christie told a crowd of onlookers, beachgoers, and reporters, as he pledged to work "until every person is back in their home."

The crowd was largely friendly, and a number of people said they weren't particularly bothered by Christie's travels.

John Becker, 68, of Belmar, accepted that Christie's prepresidential campaign forays were "a fact of life for politicians," although he noted that "when you put them in office, you want them to be around."

Would he vote for Christie for president? "Probably," Becker said. "At least he knows Jersey."


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