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Christie maintains a political balancing act

Saturday - 6/15/2013, 9:30pm  ET

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative America's meeting, Friday, June 14, 2013, in Chicago. Former President Clinton and Christie held a closing session titled "Cooperation and Collaboration: A Conversation on Leadership." (AP Photo/Scott Eisen)

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) -- Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is walking a political tightrope as he charts his future, trying to balance his re-election campaign in a Democratic-leaning state with a potential presidential bid aimed at winning over Republicans.

His latest challenge came in an appearance with former President Bill Clinton in Chicago, a move that ran the risk of alienating religious conservatives being wooed in Washington by other potential GOP presidential candidates.

Christie has pitched himself as a pragmatic, bipartisan leader as he seeks a second term as governor this fall. Participating in the Clinton Global Initiative America's meeting on Friday gave him a chance to appear with the popular ex-president -- the event was billed "Cooperation and Collaboration: A Conversation on Leadership" -- and to talk about tackling problems like New Jersey's recovery from Superstorm Sandy.

In Washington the same day, evangelical conservatives gathered for Ralph Reed's annual Faith and Freedom Coalition conference. Republican presidential hopefuls tackled heated issues like abortion and immigration -- policy debates that may shape the future of the GOP. Activists attending the conference questioned Christie's priorities.

"He can't spend 10 minutes just to make an appearance?" asked Ginger Howard, a Christian conservative who hosts an Atlanta radio show. "People who neglect us are sorry."

Seven hundred miles from the conservative gathering, Clinton and Christie praised each other during a friendly 40-minute conversation about New Jersey's recovery from the storm at the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting.

The former president turned to the audience at one point and said of Christie, "I want all of you to know how much work he's done on this."

"The enduring image that most Americans have of you is standing there in your jacket, grieving with your people, working with them and working with your president," Clinton told the Republican governor. "And you got both praise and damnation for ignoring the political differences that you had then and still have with the president and all of us in the other party to do something that was really important."

Christie explained his thought process in the days after the storm, repeatedly mentioning his discussions with Obama.

"There are no partisan lines on this one when it happens," Christie said. "You're reaching out to everybody you can."

Christie has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to highlight his centrist, above-politics approach. The governor picked up endorsements earlier this week from home-state Democrats and appeared with President Barack Obama along the Jersey Shore late last month to tout the region's recovery from a devastating storm. It was Christie's second joint appearance with Obama along the coast, the first coming a week before the 2012 election in a move that caused some conservatives to charge that it undermined Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Reed's Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group created by the influential former Christian Coalition leader, featured appearances from several Republicans thought to be weighing presidential bids. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke at the opening luncheon, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's running mate last year, and former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, among others.

In many cases, they rejected calls for a moderate approach to explosive issues like gay marriage and immigration, insisting that Republicans double down on their conservative ideals as they look to rebuild after Obama's re-election.

Christie avoided the issues completely by not showing up.

"Chris Christie is dangerously close to sending conservative Republicans a clear message that he doesn't care about their thoughts or views," said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a veteran of presidential politics. "Spending time with Barack Obama is one thing, but when he goes out of his way to spend time with Bill Clinton it begins looking like a pattern of behavior that will alienate Republican voters -- and conservatives in particular."

Christie's political team remains focused on his re-election campaign, setting aside any potential presidential ambitions ahead of the November election. But the appearance alongside Clinton could have benefits.

Clinton carried New Jersey twice and remains popular among Democrats, who comprise about one-third of the state's electorate. Unaffiliated voters in Christie's state account for nearly half the electorate, and Republicans make up the smallest slice, only about 20 percent.

Beyond the immediate political implications, Clinton's appearance with Christie offers parallels to the ex-president's own career. When Clinton launched his presidential campaign in the fall of 1991, his party had suffered three straight presidential defeats and many Democrats openly wondered if they could recapture the White House.

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