Nashville, Tennessee (CNN) — Chris Christie swept into Tennessee on Friday and did all the things that Chris Christie does best.
He raised a barrel full of money, for the Republican Governors Association and the Tennessee GOP. A consummate political performer, he backslapped his way through two fawning campaign crowds, one in Memphis and one in Nashville, posing for pictures and obliging starstruck Republicans who complimented him on his weight loss.
And of course, he picked a fight — this time with Tennessee’s tea party.
“We don't need people in Washington who stand for divisiveness, so let's not send anybody like that up there,” the New Jersey governor said at a re-election campaign event for Sen. Lamar Alexander, who faces an upstart conservative primary opponent this year. “Let's not start getting dumb.”
The admonishment drew a rebuke from Alexander’s tea party foe, state Rep. Joe Carr, who lashed out at Christie’s “dumb governance” and mocked New Jersey’s multiple credit downgrades and the George Washington Bridge scandal that roiled Trenton earlier this year.
But Carr, like many tea party candidates in the establishment-strikes-back election season of 2014, was punching up. Christie, the likely presidential candidate, was booked as the headline speaker the Tennessee Republican Party’s annual Statesmen’s Dinner in Nashville on Friday night. Alexander, too, basked in the glow of the crowd. Carr, meanwhile, sat quietly at a table in the audience. He departed right after Christie’s speech.
Christie backed off the “dumb” language in his remarks Friday, which raised more than $700,000 for the state Republican party and attracted more than 1,700 supporters to the Music City Center in downtown Nashville. But he tapped into now well-worn Christie themes of bipartisanship and problem-solving, delivering a plea for compromise in Washington, obliquely attacking tea party ideologues, and pointing to his work with Democrats in New Jersey as a model for the nation.
“We can compromise and we should,” he said. “But we should only comprise from a position of strength, when people know what we stand for and we don’t.” Christie, though, revealed little about what he stands for in terms of policy — instead training his rhetoric on the failures of Washington politicians.
He fired off a salvo against do-nothing political leaders who “put out press releases, go on cable television, bicker with each other and get nothing done.” President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats were certainly a target. But conservative hard-liners in Congress were implicitly in Christie’s cross-hairs as well.
“Who is watching the mess in Washington, D.C., created by both parties, and is looking at that and saying, ‘Hey let’s do that, let’s give that a try!,’” Christie said. “‘Let’s close down the government and not make it work for the people! Let’s not even speak to each other about the issues that are important! Let’s not reform a tax system that’s choking off economic growth! Let’s not have an energy policy that can free us geopolitically and economically for a new era of North American dominance in the world!’” Nobody, he answered.
“I don’t know when compromise became capitulation, but that’s what people in Washington, D.C. seem to think,” he said. “I don’t know when it became wrong to talk to the people on the either side, to respect them and become their friends.”
Christie pointed to Tennessee’s two Republican senators — Alexander and Bob Corker, a pair of occasional deal-makers who preceded him in the program — as “an example in the Senate for what our country needs to be doing.” (He did not extend the praise to several conservative House Republicans from Tennessee, including Marsha Blackburn and Chuck Fleischmann, who came on stage later.)
Christie’s three-stop tour of Tennessee — he also showed up at a Nashville barbecue restaurant with Gov. Bill Haslam, up for re-election this year — was his first public foray into the American South as a potential White House contender. At the Memphis event Friday morning, Christie conceded that his political sway in the region was probably limited.
A reporter asked him why he wasn’t in nearby Mississippi endorsing Sen. Thad Cochran, another establishment-backed incumbent with a tea party fight on his hands. "To tell you the truth I don't know if an endorsement from the governor of New Jersey would help anyone of them," Christie responded.
Later, in Memphis, a reporter asked Christie how a perceived moderate from the northeast would fare in Tennessee — a state that boasts thriving urban centers but still maintains a culturally conservative bent. “I don’t worry about those things,” he said. “I think people judge by who you are and what you’ve done.”
Christie still radiated the kind of star power that elevated him to national prominence after his first election in 2009. He was mobbed as he worked his way through Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant alongside Haslam, at one point jovially crossing paths with a boozy, cowboy-hat-wearing bachelorette party. He fielded praise about his weight loss, posed for pictures, and welcomed offers from out-of-state tourists to come visit their states.
The governor was greeted with a respectful, but not passionate, standing ovation as he strode onto the stage at the Statesmen’s Dinner. His speech, in which he called himself a “Republican conservative governor,” drew the third largest audience in the dinner’s history, behind headliners Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 1997. Earlier in the day, he held a batch of fundraising meetings that raised $500,000 for the Republican Governors Association, the political group he chairs.
He was also on the receiving end of kind words from Corker, Alexander, Tennessee GOP Chairman Chris Devaney and Haslam, who vouched for Christie’s character as a family man.
“I have gotten to know him as a governor,” Haslam told the audience. “He has truly has become a friend.”