LEBANON, N.H. - Mitt Romney won the support yesterday of Governor Chris Christie, a crucial endorsement that could burnish the Republican presidential candidate’s front-runner status and benefit his coffers.
At a quickly arranged joint news conference five hours before Romney and his rivals met in a debate at Dartmouth College, Christie praised Romney’s experience in business and as governor of Massachusetts.
Unlike President Obama, Romney understands the essence of American dynamism, the New Jersey governor said. The president is trying to divide the nation and to tell people “the pie of America is only so big that if you want more we have to take it from others,’’ Christie said.
“I know Mitt Romney believes the American pie can be grown bigger,’’ he said. “That it can be an infinite size because of the infinite nature of American ingenuity and effort and character.’’
He also joined Romney in denouncing disparaging comments that a pastor and supporter of Governor Rick Perry of Texas made about Romney’s Mormon faith. On Friday, Pastor Robert Jeffress, who introduced Perry at a conservative gathering, called Mormonism a “cult’’ and said Romney is “not a Christian.’’
Romney, addressing the pastor’s comments directly for the first time, called on his GOP rival “to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks made by that pastor.’’
“I just don’t believe that that kind of divisiveness based on religion has a place in this country,’’ Romney said, citing an article of the Constitution that states no religious test will be required of a candidate for office. “I believe in the spirit of the founders when they suggested in crafting this country that we would be a nation that tolerated people of different faiths.’’
Christie also criticized the Perry campaign: “Any campaign that associates themselves with that type of comment is beneath the office of president of the United States.’’
“These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of someone’s ability to lead,’’ he added.
Perry’s campaign had said the governor does not agree with the pastor’s comments but had declined to disavow him. Perry stood by that decision yesterday.
Christie’s endorsement is a major coup for Romney. The blunt-talking New Jersey governor is considered a rising star in the party and has won praise from Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans. Until last week, he was the subject of an intense courtship by Republican donors and party elders to seek the presidential nomination.
Instead, Christie said “now is not my time’’ to seek the nomination. Several of his key financial backers have pledged their allegiance to Romney, and yesterday’s announcement is expected to accelerate that trend.
The endorsement was in the making for days, but the groundwork was laid months ago. The two met early in Romney’s candidacy at Drumthwacket, the official residence of the New Jersey governor. Since then, they remained in conversations over the phone, according to Romney advisers.
After Christie ruled out a presidential run, Romney’s campaign began reaching out. The two spoke and scheduled a lunch meeting Saturday at Christie’s personal home in Mendham, N.J.
Romney and his wife, Ann, flew down that day and met with Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, and two of their four children. Christie told Romney he was prepared to endorse him, but the news was kept under wraps.
Romney’s advisers said Christie could fill a variety of roles in the campaign, including as a sounding board for policy ideas as well as a prominent defender of Romney - a role Christie began playing yesterday.
“I’m proud of him for standing up to do what he believes was right,’’ Christie said, referring to Romney’s role in developing universal health care in Massachusetts. That accomplishment has been a magnet for criticism from Romney’s rivals and many Republican leaders.
Perry has been pummeling Romney on the issue, saying he has wavered over his role in paving the way for Obama’s health care overhaul - which all the Republican candidates want to repeal.
Christie said the difference between the plans is that Romney did not raise taxes to pay for his plan, adding that any comparison is “intellectually dishonest.’’
Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Shira Schoenberg, who reported from Lebanon, N.H., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alex Katz reported from Washington, D.C.