The Deflation of Chris Christie

As the forceful governor of New Jersey heads full-force into the presidential campaign, the once-promising presidential prospect is an also-ran in the polls.

At the time of his landslide re-election as governor in 2013, he led a national field of potential Republican presidential candidates, garnering as much as 24 percent. At the same time, his approval rating in his Democratic-leaning state topped 60 percent.

But by the time he formally announced his run for the Presidency in June, Christie's share of the Republican primary in national polls had fallen below 5 percent. His disapproval rating at home topped 55 percent.

It was his own political appointees who knocked the wind out of him, thinking it would be in their patron's best interest to cause massive traffic back-ups on the vital commuting route into New York City over the George Washington Bridge. The hi-jinks discovered, "Bridgegate" robbed the governor of one of his key assets: credibility.

An enthusiastic public began to have second thoughts about the un-politician, the man who was unfiltered, direct, meant-what-he-said. The traffic hi-jinks led to one of two conclusions for many voters. If Christie was complicit in any way, then he was a fraud. If he was not at all involved, then he was not in control of his own team. More than half of voters thought that it was "unlikely" that the governor was unaware of what his appointees were up to.

The erosion of his credibility and approval ratings made it more difficult for Christie to shape the story on his key area of success in the Garden State: fiscal responsibility. So, for example, when the acrimonious fight broke out again (and again) over funding public pension systems, the governor took his lumps. That his administration had put more into the pension funds than three previous governors was suddenly not as strong a defense as before. It hurt further that the state's credit ratings edged downwards--largely due to the long-underfunded pension system, suddenly in the spotlight of newly, scrupulous bond-raters. Finally the long-predicted depletion of the state's Transportation Trust Fund only amplified the state's pension problems and declining bond ratings.

The Transportation Trust Fund was meant to pay for on-going massive projects of rebuilding roads, bridges and tunnels. It was also abused under a succession of governors going back decades.

But empty is empty. New Jersey voters are told that the only way to fix the fund is to raise gas taxes--which funded it in the first place. The rub is that voters overwhelmingly oppose increasing the gas tax and Christie made his reputation resisting tax increases.

Christie's conservative fiscal strength has become a vulnerability not just in state politics but in the presidential race: public employees who supported him by 2-to-1 margins for years, now oppose him; the state's credit ratings continue to slide; the prospect looms of higher gas taxes in a state full of commuters.

The disappointment of the fiscal conservative from New Jersey is captured in a low-rating of the state by the fiscal watchdog, Volker Alliance: "Jersey is a state that is continuously challenged in both Republican and Democratic administrations," said Mr Gassgall, the program director. "It's a non-partisan thing."

Ideally, Christie's presidential strategists would have had him stand rock-solid on his fiscal record to distinguish himself from the large field of me-too conservatives in the race. But his pivot point is not rock-solid in the public's opinion, and now he must take stances on issues he has long shied away from in his Democratic state.

Among the clearest examples of the dissonance between public opinion in the Garden State and public opinion in the Republican primaries are guns and abortion.

Seven of ten (70 percent) of Republicans nationwide are pro-gun ownership but three-quarters (76 percent) of New Jersey voters are pro-gun control, including 62 percent of NJ Republicans who favor more restrictions on guns and ammo.

Similarly, seven in ten Republicans nationwide (69 percent) describe themselves as pro-life but New Jerseyans overwhelmingly favor legal abortion (87 percent).

And so it goes with same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and illegal immigration. A recent GfK poll shows just 22 percent of Republicans nationwide favor same-sex marriage but in New Jersey three of five voters support it (61 percent) and half of Republicans (49 percent). These issues were not front and center for Gov. Christie as a long as he stayed in-state. Avoiding such issues was one key to his success in New Jersey. But on the presidential hustings they cannot be avoided.

The dissonance is captured in the photograph of Christie walking arm-in-arm the president in 2012. It was a pretty picture to residents in the trying aftermath of a devastating hurricane--voters who had consistently given the President favorable approval ratings. But it is not a pretty pic to hardcore Obama detractors, now found in abundance in Republican presidential primaries.

So Christie must adapt, however awkwardly, to the zeitgeist of the Republican Party faithful. He once mastered the spirit of his own state. Perhaps he will do it again nationally. Perhaps he is chasing ghosts.