Would America elect a fat president?

As Gov. Christie reconsiders a presidential bid that could pit him against a trim President Obama, his acknowledged weight problem is a case study in politics and appearance in a hypervisual age.

Fat is the word many Americans associate with Christie, just as black was the only thing many knew about Obama at this stage in the 2008 presidential election campaign, political observers say. And just as Obama addressed his mixed-race background in a March 2008 speech in Philadelphia - and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke of his Catholicism in 1960 - Christie would be pressed to address the "girth issue" in a significant way during a presidential campaign.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato suggests that instead of a speech, Christie seek out an interview with a woman - perhaps Diane Sawyer or the ladies of The View - who could provide a sympathetic ear as Christie expounded on how obesity is not only a personal problem, but as he has said, an American problem.

After Christie, 49, was hospitalized in July after an asthma attack, he faced cameras for 45 minutes and answered a range of questions about his weight.

"It's one of the major struggles of my life," he said. "I'm working on it. Like many other people across New Jersey and the country, I'm working on it."

Christie said he exercises with a personal trainer, barely drinks, and doesn't smoke. His blood pressure was a respectable 118/78, he said.

His weight "exacerbates" medical problems, such as asthma, Christie said, but he described himself as generally healthy - a former high school baseball catcher who has not been able to keep the pounds off since he stopped playing sports.

"I weigh too much because I eat too much," he said.

Though many Americans can empathize with him, as speculation about a Christie run has heated up, some prognosticators have insisted that Christie's weight is a reason he should not be president.

"Look, I'm sorry, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat," wrote Michael Kinsley of Bloomberg View, explaining that his size reflects poorly on Christie's "behavior."

Acknowledging that his view was "discriminatory," Kinsley wrote that Christie could "thin down" if he really wanted to. Since "the president inevitably sets an example," and obesity is a national epidemic, a skinny person should run the country, Kinsley argued.

Other commentators have wondered if Christie was fit enough to handle the rigors of the campaign trail, and suggested that his eating habits indicated he was an out-of-control person unfit for the Oval Office.

The late-night comics also have teed off on the governor, with David Letterman devoting an entire Top 10 list to Christie fat jokes, including the possibility of the future president appointing a Secretary of Cake and invading IHOP instead of Iraq.

After MSNBC's Chris Matthews made fat jokes about Christie, Fox news host Neil Cavuto called the attack "racism - with a scale." Then again, the liberal media watchdog Media Matters has identified Fox News hosts who called Christie "fat."

During a presidential campaign, the digs at Christie - and back-and-forth reprimands - would likely increase.

"Prejudice and discrimination against obese people is the last socially accepted form of bigotry," said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.

"Of all the issues you can consider about a presidential candidate, how does weight make the top hundred? To me it's just preposterous."

Although the average obese person has more medical conditions than others, the argument that all obese people are in poor health - and therefore more likely to die while in office if serving as president - is not true, Foster said.

"There are many overweight people who are physically fit, who are healthy, who don't have metabolic complications," Foster said. No data suggest a link between intelligence or leadership abilities and weight, he said.

"[Christie] is a member of a group, like Obama is, that has lots of negative stereotypes associated with it, and you have to get past it," Foster said.

Obama's cigarette smoking - he quit more than a year ago, according to reports earlier this year - is analogous to Christie's weight problem, Sabato said, because it affects health and life span. Christie would have to release his medical records, as is customary, if he won the nomination.

The governor's weight has so far been a secret. In an Associated Press article about his recent modest weight loss, Christie did not say how much he shed. The New Republic magazine's guess was 334 pounds - which would put his Body Mass Index at 46.6, higher than estimates for the heaviest president in U.S. history, William Howard Taft.

Such a designation may not hamper Christie. A University of Missouri study released last year found that obese male political candidates were viewed more positively than thin ones, with higher ratings for honesty and performance ability.

But Christie must first become as well known for his political views as he is for his physique. On Monday, the word "Christie" sat in 11th place on the Google Trends list for most searched terms. When coupled with "fat," a search returned 45.8 million hits - just below the 60.7 million hits for "Christie" and "taxes," which is the governor's best-known issue.

Opponents have picked on Christie's weight in the past without success. His 2009 gubernatorial opponent, former Gov. Jon S. Corzine, released an ad alleging that Christie "threw his weight around." The voice-over was coupled with an unflattering slow-motion video of a jacket-less Christie getting out of a car. The backlash hit the Corzine camp hard.

Since he has been governor, those who post on anti-Christie Facebook message boards often have referred derisively to Christie's weight, and a woman at a City Council meeting in Newark once called Christie "Krispy Kreme." That nickname is frequently used by those who comment anonymously on Internet news sites.

Sabato said Christie can use his weight to his advantage. A suggested campaign slogan, "Not just another pretty face," would indicate "I am every man. I have a weakness. Here it is. And it's out front for everyone to see."

But asked whether an overweight woman could be elected president, Sabato paused.

"Ask me that tomorrow," he said. "I'm not ready to deal with that one yet."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles