By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor – Chris Christie says it was family rather than presidential politics that convinced him to undergo weight-reduction surgery.
“For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them,” Christie told the New York Post. “I know it sounds crazy to say that running for president is minor, but in the grand scheme of things, it was looking at (his wife) Mary Pat and the kids and going, ‘I have to do this for them.’ ”
But regardless of his motivation, the news that the heavyweight New Jersey governor had lap-band surgery in February will have an effect on his chances of winning the White House should he decide to run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.
While the surgery and anticipated weight loss should negate the nagging question of whether a person as obese as Christie is healthy enough to endure the demands of the presidency, it won’t help him with suspicions by those on the right over his conservative credentials.
“I think you’d have to say that losing weight was a prerequisite for him for running for the presidency. His weight was a liability,” CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger said.
Christie’s weight was an issue in his 2009 run for governor, when he defeated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine. Christie’s girth was portrayed unflatteringly in campaign ads by Corzine’s campaign.
Christie’s weight has not been an issue as he runs this year for re-election to a second term: A Quinnipiac University poll of New Jersey voters conducted in March indicated that 68% of Garden State voters were comfortable with an overweight candidate, with just just over one in five holding reservations.
But running for the White House is a whole different ball game.
“When you start playing on the presidential stage it becomes an entirely different story,” Borger said. “People care about your health. They want to know that you can fulfill the rigors of the office.”
GOP analyst and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos, a veteran of a number of Republican presidential campaigns, agrees.
“When you are running for president, who you are, your character, is as important as what you propose. Voters want to know if you understand their struggles. The governor of New Jersey is smart to open up about his health issues,” said Castellanos, who is spearheading a new super PAC called the NewRepublican.org to refocus the party’s messaging and policy goals.
The simple truth is that no one of Christie’s size in modern times has gone on to win a presidential nomination, let alone the White House. But in this age of television and the Internet, this may be less about health and more about appearance.
“Health problems for presidential and vice presidential candidates don’t seem to make much difference to American voters, dating at least as far back as Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attacks. So any health-related concerns about an overweight candidate might have little impact. What is less clear is whether the outward appearance of an overweight candidate would affect many voters,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.
Christie’s weight has been an issue of fodder for comedians and journalists alike, but primarily because the governor is regularly self-deprecating about the issue. In an appearance earlier this year on late-night television with David Letterman, Christie joked that he was “basically the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life.”
But he’s also talked seriously of his struggles, saying at a news conference in February that, “I am making the best effort I can,” when it came to his weight loss.
People may now pay attention to Christie to see how effectively he can lose weight, and the episode becomes part of his personal narrative, giving him a story to tell.
“He can now say that ‘I’m devoted to my family, to my kids, I want to dance at my kids’ wedding. That’s something that appeals to voters,” Borger said. “It might make him a little bit more personally appealing as someone who’s admitted to a struggle that he’s had a hard time overcoming and he’s trying to deal with.”
Castellanos agreed: “Voters are getting a lot closer to Chris Christie – the human being behind the politician – through his struggles with his weight.”
If Christie’s able to continue to shed weight and keep off the pounds, it removes one major stumbling block to any potential pathway to the presidency. But the New Jersey governor would still face serious obstacles if he made a bid for the GOP nomination, thanks to his stances on such issues as gun control, immigration reform, and climate change. And then there’s his praise of President Barack Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of New Jersey just before last November’s election.
“Getting thinner is not going to make conservatives love Chris Christie any more,” Borger said. “They think he’s a moderate. They don’t like the way he embraced President Obama before the last election.”