He’s no conservative, but he plays one on TV.

I turned on the TV on a recent Saturday evening. On the screen was an actor playing Mitt Romney. Then another guy came on playing Chris Christie. The Christie character got all the laughs. He also got to nudge the Romney guy out of the way to announce “Live from New York! It’s Saturday night!”

I’ve seen a lot of things in the 36 years I’ve been covering New Jersey politics. But this was a first. It’s one thing for a Jersey pol to make a splash in Washington. But New York?

That never happens. It’s not that New Yorkers dislike Jerseyans. They simply don’t know we exist.

Except for our governor. Chris Christie’s a star. When he held a press conference in early October to announce his decision on whether to run for the presidency in 2012, so many members of the media showed up that some TV cameramen were left out in the hall. When he announced he wasn’t going to enter the race, the news made headlines all over America.

I was in that same room when the Christie phenomenon began. That was at a press conference in the spring of 2010. My fellow Star-Ledger columnist, Tom Moran, asked a seemingly innocuous question about whether the governor thought his “confrontational tone” was causing unneeded friction with the Democrats who control the legislature.

Christie responded, “If you think I’m confrontational now, you should see me when I get really pissed.” He then went on a rant that was pretty funny, but no funnier than a lot of stuff you hear in the most humorous state in the Union.

Soon, however, a clip got posted on YouTube. That video went viral. All of a sudden, Chris Christie was the rising star of the Republican Party.

Who’d have expected that? Certainly not those of us who covered him in person. New Jersey does not have a major television station. We in the media saw Christie in person. And in person, he’s just another pol. The star of his race for governor against incumbent Jon Corzine was a different Chris, Chris Daggett, a third-party candidate who won the debates and stole the headlines.

After Christie scraped out a narrow victory, he governed like the moderate he’d been since he first entered politics in the 1990s. He packed his cabinet with liberals and minorities and he took middle-of-the-road stances on policy questions.

But then he hit YouTube. Before long he was a hero to conservatives all over America. MSNBC’s Joe Scarbrough even said of Christie, “he reduces me to a 14-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.”

That’s not the effect Christie has on me. I remember where I was when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964—crammed into a tiny Cape Cod in a suburb along the Jersey Shore with my four brothers. I thought John, Paul, George, and Ringo were great.

But not Chris Christie. My first impression of him in 2009 when he declared for governor was: Uh-oh, another slick lawyer from North Jersey wants to run for office.

Though he likes to stress his ties to the streets of gritty Newark, the actual streets where Christie grew up are in one of the most politically correct suburbs on the planet. Christie loves to tell audiences he was born in Newark. But he grew up in Livingston. It’s just a few road miles from Newark, but it’s a world away. Livingston is a pleasant suburb packed with old-money WASPs and highly educated Jews.

When young Chris was in high school, he famously knocked on the door of the most prominent resident of the town. That was Tom Kean, who won two terms as governor in the 1980s and who was an unabashed Rockefeller Republican. Kean gave New Jersey its first progressive income tax and used the money to shore up his support in the cities, winning re-election by a landslide.

Ever since, Republicans have been trying to repeat that feat, and Christie is no exception. He has always been a Kean Republican, and his biggest political ally is literally a Kean Republican—state Senate minority leader Tom Kean Jr.

Those ties explain a lot about his core beliefs, and they’re not in the least conservative.

Christie began his political career in the early 1990s after he finished law school and moved to neighboring Morris County, a suburban haven even tonier and leafier than Livingston. His signature issue was the state’s assault weapons ban. Under that ban you could get locked up for five years for owning one of the most common .22 caliber rifles. Christie supported it. He supported a lot of other liberal things as well.

But that’s not what stood out about his early entry into politics. What set him apart was his blind ambition. On Jan. 1, 1995, he took the oath of office as a member of the board that runs Morris County. By the end of the month, he announced he was entering the Republican primary for state Assembly.

Christie lost that primary to a conservative. A few years later, he lost another primary, this one for his county post. The race was marred by a lot of public brawling with his fellow Republicans.

Christie looked finished. But another old-money WASP saved his career. George W. Bush has his roots in the same GOP Eastern establishment as the Keans, having been born in on the other side of the Manhattan orbit, in Connecticut. Christie’s brother Todd, who made a fortune on Wall Street, picked Bush as an up-and-comer long before the 2000 election. The brothers were rewarded for their efforts by Chris’s appointment as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey.

It was in that role that Christie got his start in statewide politics. His job as U.S. Attorney was set to end when Bush’s term expired in 2009. Christie began lining up support to run for governor that year against incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine.

In 2007, Christie made his first splash by inserting himself into a fight about illegal immigration in his own Morris County. Again he was on the liberal side.

Christie lives in a leafy suburb called Mendham. People in places like Mendham need lots of cheap labor to keep up their lawns and yards. Those workers have to live somewhere. That somewhere is Morristown, the nearby county seat.

The mayor of Morristown at the time, Don Cresitello, lives the persona Christie plays on TV. He’s a tough-talking Jersey guy. Though Cresitello is a Democrat, even the local Republicans shied away from him when he talked about the problems created by the illegals. Cresitello would embarrass the establishment by talking openly to reporters about rapes and murders committed by illegal aliens and about the depredations of MS-13, the Salvadoran gang.

The fun began after the mayor petitioned the federal government to win what’s known as 287(g) status for the local police. This permits police to hand over to the feds illegal aliens charged with crimes. The Democratic mayor, in other words, would be creating cases for the Republican U.S. attorney.

Christie didn’t want the work. He made that clear after some conservative groups scheduled a rally in support of the mayor outside the town hall on a summer Saturday. The rally began with the National Anthem. The right-wingers stood in silence. Across the street a group of counter-protesters chanted and jeered. Cresitello took the microphone and denounced the “Marxists and communists” waving red flags.

A few days later, immigration activists held a meeting at local Latino church. The U.S. Attorney agreed to speak to them. “I don’t think it’s helpful when a mayor of a town stands up at a rally and calls people he believes to be undocumented ‘pinkos’ and ‘communists’,” Christie told the largely Latino audience.

Cresitello had done nothing of the sort. I interviewed some of the counter-demonstrators. They were indeed Marxists and communists. And they were spoiled rich kids from Manhattan, not illegal aliens.

Christie was unrepentant. Before long he was sucking up to the immigration activists once again. This time he told a largely Latino audience that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.”

This gained Christie his first YouTube clip, one that would have dogged him if he had entered the GOP presidential primary.

“One of the top law-enforcement officers in this country is out of his mind.” Lou Dobbs said in a four-minute diatribe. Dobbs reported that Christie had prosecuted just 13 cases involving illegal immigration in the preceding five years. The U.S. attorney for Kansas had prosecuted 597 such cases, he said.

Dobbs finished up with a sarcastic line: “That would be a wonderful thing for the people of New Jersey to contemplate: Chris Christie for governor.”

 

To become governor, Christie would first have to win the Republican primary. To do that he’d have to defeat Steve Lonegan.

Lonegan comes from a different world than Christie, a world outside the gravitational pull of New York. As the mayor of a small town, Lonegan endeared himself to right-wing Republicans by doing things like suing his own state party leadership for excessive bonding and by protesting a Spanish language billboard that McDonald’s had erected at the edge of his town.

New Jersey’s Republican establishment hates that sort of thing, but GOP primary voters love it. How would Christie defeat Lonegan?

By lying his ass off, if I may out it in plain English. One issue will suffice to show the depths to which Christie sank. That issue is the property-tax rebate check. Governor after governor has followed Kean’s model and raised income taxes on the premise of providing suburban property-tax relief. But the money always goes to the cities. All the suburbs get is a property-tax rebate check—timed to arrive in the mailbox right before November elections.

It’s a gimmick, and Lonegan denounced it as such. He promised to end the rebates. He also promised to end the progressive income tax in favor of a flat tax. And he said he’d stop sending suburban tax revenue to the cities.

Christie had no property-tax plan of his own. But he promptly sent out a mailer to homeowners showing a mock rebate check with the words “Canceled by Steve Lonegan” stamped on it. Christie vowed he’d not only keep the rebate checks coming but increase the amount.

That got him past Lonegan. And after he squeaked by Corzine as well Christie promptly labeled the rebates “a gimmick” and canceled the checks.

You don’t see that sort of thing on YouTube. There are towns in Jersey where you can pay $25,000 in taxes a year on a three-bedroom house, yet Christie ducks the property-tax issue at every turn. What we need in New Jersey is a version of Proposition 13, the tax-cutting measure California adopted in 1978. We don’t have initiative and referendum, though, so conservative Republican legislators have put together a property-tax referendum and are trying to get it on the ballot.

If you know Christie only from YouTube, you probably assume he supports these conservatives. Not at all. He fights them the way Churchill promised to fight the Germans: on the beaches, in the hills, on the streets—and also in the back rooms.

That’s the real Christie. He’s a huge improvement on his predecessor, who was perhaps the biggest-spending liberal ever to win a governorship in any state. But Christie is anything but an instinctive conservative.

That may work to our detriment here in Jersey. But nationally, this guy is golden. It’s easy to see why. The current stalking horse for the establishment GOP, Mitt Romney, has so little appeal that at the moment he’s threatened by a guy who ran a company called “Godfather’s Pizza.”

In Christie, you’ve got a guy who’s from a part of the world where the pizza really does come from godfathers. Put a camera in front of him and Christie connects with regular guys and Tea Party types like no politician in recent memory. Meanwhile he is more completely a product of the old Eastern establishment GOP than anyone not named Bush, Kean, or Whitman.

He’s the perfect candidate. So it’s no wonder he was under so much pressure to run for president. Why didn’t he? I rarely suspect politicians of telling the truth, but when Christie said at that press conference that he wasn’t ready to kick off a presidential campaign, I believed him. If he’d jumped in the race, he would have faced 13 months of nonstop campaigning under a best-case scenario.

He couldn’t do that and also run the state. So he had to bow out. But he left the door open for a vice-presidential nomination. And he kicked the door open even further when he gave his endorsement to Romney in a televised press conference just before a key debate in New Hampshire.

The effect of the endorsement may be to solidify support for Romney at a key moment in his fight with his biggest rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. If Romney wins the nomination, he’s going to owe Christie a big favor.

So as the old saying goes, don’t touch that dial. You’ll be seeing a lot more of your favorite TV personality.

Paul Mulshine is an opinion columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.