OXON HILL, Md. — A measured Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, returning to the national political spotlight at a convention of conservative activists Thursday, chided Washington for its political dysfunction, played up his social conservatism, and urged the Republican Party to broaden its electoral appeal, warning that “we’ve got to start to talk about what we are for and not what we are against.”
Christie, long a proponent of pragmatism over ideology, told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “we don’t get to govern if we don’t win.”
“Please, let’s come out of this conference not only resolved to stand for our principles, but let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again,” he said.
But Christie did not use the closely watched speech to offer a full-throated challenge to his party’s conservative wing, as he had in the past.
Instead, he seemed to take a more cautious approach at a moment when he remains politically vulnerable, amid a bruising scandal in New Jersey over his administration’s role in the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge.
He devoted much of the speech to reinforcing traditional Republican messages, frequently sounding as much like a conventional Republican looking to endear himself to his party’s base as a blunt conveyor of uncomfortable truths, Christie’s familiar and favored role.
He referred repeatedly to his antiabortion positions. He railed against the news media, saying they had misrepresented the Republican Party. He mocked President Obama’s leadership. He promoted the records of fellow Republican governors. And he defended the billionaire Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, against attacks from Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader.
The crowd responded warmly, interrupting Christie about a half-dozen times with applause and giving him a standing ovation.
Christie’s tone may have reflected not only the conservative audience but his standing within the Republican electorate. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 31 percent of Republicans want Christie to run for president, versus 41 percent who do not.
The annual gathering of conservative activists has long created a conundrum for the Republican Party and its leaders, simultaneously serving as a pep rally for its right wing, an influential bloc of voters in primaries, and as a political liability for its image with a broader, more moderate electorate. (It was here that Mitt Romney, straining to win over skeptical conservatives, fatefully described himself as “severely conservative.” Ridicule ensued.)
This year, organizers seemed determined to put a less strident face on the convention and the party. They stacked its opening day with leaders like Christie and Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, who have pushed the party to broaden its appeal to minority voters, play down ideological purity, and welcome dissent.
“A majority party welcomes debate, brings people in,” Ryan said Thursday. “It doesn’t burn heretics, it wins converts.”
But that gentler message was occasionally clouded by speakers who went on the attack, eviscerating Obama, his health care overhaul, foreign policy, and oversight of the Internal Revenue Service. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a rising star in the conservative world, offered the most searing attack.
“If you have a president who is picking and choosing which laws to follow and which laws to ignore, you no longer have a president,” Cruz said. He mischievously warned that “by virtue of your being here today, tomorrow, each and every one of you is going to be audited by the IRS.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took the stage wielding a rifle and quipped that Obama was “treating our Constitution worse than a place mat at Denny’s.”
John R. Bolton, a former UN ambassador, upbraided Obama for what he described as a weak approach to national security, evoking the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. “Under Barack Obama, you can murder his personal representative and get away scot-free,” Bolton said.