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Chris Christie’s shifting positions become fodder for rivals

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Chris Christie plans to defend his record during his State of the State address Tuesday.REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Chris Christie portrays himself as a straight-talking governor who will, as his campaign bus says, "tell it like it is," whether you like it or not. He'll even yell at people to make his point at town halls, if that's what it takes.

But the New Jersey chief executive's record during more than two decades in public life illustrates something else: an adaptive politician whose positions have shifted, often to a remarkable degree, depending on the electorate he seeks to win over.

Like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — tagged for changing his positions so often that critics showed up at his presidential campaign events toting giant flip-flop sandals — Christie faces a challenge running as a blue-state governor in a Republican presidential primary. In choosing to adjust to meet the expectations of a more conservative audience, at a time when polls say voters crave authenticity, he has opened himself to attacks by opponents who say he lacks core convictions.

Where, for example, Christie once supported national education standards, he's now against them. After backing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, now he's opposed.


During early runs for state office in the early 1990s he supported abortion rights and wanted to preserve a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. Now? He favors a variety of limits on abortion and boasts about making it easier for people in New Jersey to obtain gun permits.

"There's no question that some of his positions have changed over the years," said Richard Merkt, a former New Jersey lawmaker who was a Christie ally in the 1990s but has emerged as a critic, citing his "weather vane chracteristics.''

Even his relationship with the current White House occupant has been recast: He now bashes President Obama as a "feckless weakling," three years after he warmly embraced the president in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.


Christie aides defended his record and pointed out one reason for his evolution on some issues — being a successful executive sometimes requires compromise.

"We know making decisions and actually getting things done is a novel concept for members of Congress who talk a big game without anything to show for it, but it is something Chris Christie has been doing as governor for the last six years," said Samantha Smith, a campaign spokeswoman. "He's stood up to a Democratic legislature fighting for conservative principles and gotten results. We'll debate that conservative record any day of the week."

Christie on Tuesday is planning to defend his record during his annual State of the State address in New Jersey. That record has increasingly come under attack, particularly in New Hampshire, as other candidates attempt to stifle some of his momentum there.

"Other campaigns have started to attack us online, on TV, and in your mailbox. Why? Because, they're nervous," Christie wrote in a fund-raising e-mail last week. Christie also called some of the charges about his past positions "old-time, old-style politics."

And in an election cycle in which front-runner Donald Trump has been caught making suspect statements and has switched numerous positions without paying any apparent political price, it's possible that charges of flip-flopping are less potent than usual for some candidates.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich have taken difficult stances — defending established positions on education, immigration, and Medicaid that put them out of step with many GOP voters. They are struggling in many polls.


Charges of "flip-flopping" damaged Romney during his two presidential campaigns. While gearing up to run for president, the then-Massachusetts governor abandoned moderate positions on abortion, gun control, and taxes. His opponents, Republican and Democrat, had a field day.

The Romney campaign recognized the conundrum.

"The main challenge is when you're a successful blue state governor, because you focused on results and progress for your state, that's what puts you on a national stage," said Kevin Madden, a Republican consultant and top Romney aide in his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. "But the challenge is that now, inside a primary, so much of the debate is focused on ideological purity. And the challenge is how you balance that in a way that still maintains a level of authenticity."

Christie's political brand is built on blunt talk, which the campaign says reflects unflinching honesty.

A New Jersey native and former US attorney who has been to more than 120 Bruce Springsteen concerts, he comes from a rough-and-tumble political culture. His winning 2009 bid for governor in a Democratic state won him national recognition.

His White House chances were dimmed in 2013 after his aides intentionally triggered a traffic jam on the approach to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution to a local mayor. With his emphatic denials of involvement, and no evidence showing he knew, he survived the episode. Now, on the strength of his debate performances and a singular focus on New Hampshire, he is contending strongly for second place behind Trump in the Granite State. Last month, he won the coveted endorsement of the Union Leader newspaper of Manchester.


But with perceived success comes harsher scrutiny from rivals, particularly Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Kasich, and Bush. A super PAC for Rubio is attacking Christie as too liberal, while one for Kasich criticizes his economic record. Bush has been contrasting his record as Florida governor with Christie's record in New Jersey.

"You can be the most conservative Republican in New Jersey — and Christie is not — and you wouldn't be considered a conservative nationally," said Michael Symons, a longtime State House reporter in New Jersey and co-author of the book "Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power."

"Had he run for governor of New Jersey as conservatively as he's running for president, he wouldn't have gotten elected," he added.

Shifting his gaze from a New Jersey audience to a national GOP primary campaign has at times produced some head-snapping turns.

In 2013, Christie strongly defended Common Core, a group of national education standards that are despised by conservatives as federal overreach. He praised Obama and criticized opponents of the standards for adopting politically expedient positions: "Part of the problem in Congress right now, on both sides of the aisle, is that folks care more about their primaries than they care about anything else."


But last year, as he was preparing to run for president, he pulled an about-face.

"It's simply not working," he said in a May 2015 speech. "It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work."

In 2010, he advocated for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but last year disavowed that position, too, saying citizenship is an "extreme way to go."

Christie has walked a tightrope on gay marriage. He has maintained his opposition to same-sex marriages — and in 2013 vetoed legislation allowing them in New Jersey — but after the state Supreme Court legalized them, he eventually dropped an appeal. While he criticized the Supreme Court for legalizing gay marriage, he also criticized government employees for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

And he has waffled on whether to give Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal. In December 2014, he was pushing for such authority, but five months later he said, "I have real concerns about giving this president the ability to negotiate on his own."

He supported abortion rights when he ran as a state senator in the early 1990s and said he made a financial contribution to Planned Parenthood. But in 1995, he heard his daughter's heartbeat during a prenatal 13-week appointment. He's been an abortion foe since. (On Sunday he also denied donating to Planned Parenthood even though in 1994 he was quoted by the Newark Star-Ledger saying, "I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution.")

At a time when the Republican Party has been defending the rights of gun owners, Christie's opponents have been bringing up his past defense of New Jersey's ban on certain weapons. "In today's society no one needs a semiautomatic assault weapon," he said in 1993, according to the Star-Ledger. "We already have too many firearms in our communities."

When confronted with the quote — which starkly contrasts the fight by many in the GOP to block attempts to tighten gun laws — Christie initially said he didn't recall saying it. He now concedes that he shifted.

"I was 32 years old and I've changed my mind," he said on Fox News, adding, "We're making it easier for folks to be able to get a permit in New Jersey because they deserve the right to do that as law-abiding citizens."

It is still unclear how much Christie's willingness to change his mind might hinder his campaign. He has deftly explained many of his shifts and does it with more authority and confidence than Romney often did.

"My feeling is that everybody in life has the right to evolve. It's one thing if the evolution seems to be artificial and driven by opportunity rather than conviction," said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire Republican consultant and a top Kasich adviser. "But we cannot deny the right of people to grow and change in office."

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.