I was in the back of a cavernous gymnasium at a Mitt Romney rally in Exeter, N.H., on Sunday night when two female protesters interrupted a speech by Romney booster Gov. Christie. They yelled: "Christie kills jobs! Christie kills jobs!"

Christie's response became the heart of my story the next day. I wrote:

Christie paused. He had one hand on the microphone and the other in his pocket.

"Really?" he asked.

The crowd roared; they knew what was coming.

And that's when he delivered a line destined for YouTube fame: "Something may go down tonight, but it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart."

Was Christie making some sort of sexual reference? Was this in some way sexist and sexually inappropriate?

Sitting in the room, I didn't get that impression. As someone who used to write a column about gender relations, I'm pretty attuned to these things. And I'm also fully aware of Christie's history with confrontational remarks - I even had an interview with Christie in the paper that very day about his pledge to start using his filter more before he says things.

I just heard going down as a reference to a rumble and a play off the false accusation that the number of jobs in Jersey was "going down." That's it.

The crowd didn't seem to hear anything untoward either. No one I interviewed afterward - even two Democrats in the audience - heard the line as some sort of antifemale, sexually suggestive smear. The reporters I was sitting with didn't mention anything, either.

But shortly after the speech, my colleague Monica Yant Kinney e-mailed me to say she most definitely heard a sexual reference. A Facebook friend posted a note saying she was appalled. And by the next morning, a female blogger on Slate kicked off what has now become a minor controversy with an article headlined "N.J. Gov. Chris Christie Responds to Female Hecklers With Offensive Oral Sex Joke."

A video of the statement, which can be found on my blog, has more than 80,000 views.

A Washington Post opinion writer has even questioned why he would use the word sweetheart. And the editorial board of the Newark Star-Ledger wrote on Tuesday: "For a guy who's had problems with women in the past, Chris Christie sure doesn't choose his words too carefully." The paper criticized Christie for referencing "Jersey girls" in his speech, too. (It should be noted that he was talking about women who had actually written "Jersey girls" on their "Romney for President" signs.)

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, said Wednesday in an e-mail that the governor "doesn't think in those terms when addressing anyone, and he would never, ever give voice to such a thing. It's just a ridiculous interpretation and a wild stretch."

I've asked Monica to weigh in on this. Check out her blog post.

But also note that another Slate writer - who was also in the room Sunday - says he just thought that Christie was referencing the fact that the protesters were about to get busted by the cops. The backlash, though, has him changing his mind. He closed his post with this: "But now that I think about it . . . "

I imagine opinions on this will fall along party lines, but here goes anyway: What do you think? Was Christie making some sort of sexual reference in confronting a New Hampshire protester, or was he just using the crowd-pleasing confrontational language that America has come to expect?

See the video and post a comment at www.philly.com/Christie

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