Rupert Cornwell: 'Tony Soprano' has the Republicans in his ample palm

Out of America: The blunt, fat, in-your-face governor of New Jersey could be the party's best bet to take on Barack Obama in 2012. But he swears he won't run
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Back in October 2009, this column wondered if a fat man could defy the hysteria about obesity and be elected governor of a major US state. Well, New Jersey's voters did put Chris Christie in charge and, in the meantime, to my unpractised eye at least, not a single pound has melted from his 20-stone-plus frame. Yet today he is arguably the most popular Republican in the land – and the one his party would most like to see carrying its standard against President Barack Obama in 2012. The only problem is, he swears he will not.

The Chris Christie show came to Washington last week, when he addressed the leading conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. For an hour, barely looking at a note, he held the sell-out audience in the palm of his ample hand.

His message was this. Since January 2010, he had told voters in his largely Democratic state the unpleasant truth about the financial crisis it faced, and was now taking painful measures to put matters right. New Jersey's problems, he argued, were those of the US writ small. If the federal government continued to duck the tough questions posed by the budget deficit, then God help America. For the Chinese and the bond markets most certainly would not.

But how has a massively overweight man, who's held political office for only two years, become the rave of the Republican Party? According to a Zogby poll in January, he is the only Republican who beats Obama in a putative 2012 match-up. No wonder his party is begging him to become a candidate. But he will have none of it.

"I see the opportunity, I see it, but that's not the reason to run," Christie told the AEI. He simply was not ready: "What do I have to do, short of suicide, to convince people I'm not running? Apparently, I actually have to commit suicide."

However, even this Shermanesque refusal may not quench his party's yearning. For Christie is a man whose hour may have come. Americans are wont to elect new presidents as unlike their predecessors as possible: and what could be more different from the cool, professorial (and decidedly svelte) Barack Obama than a blunt, in-your-face guy from "Noo Joisey", with a belly to prop up any bar?

Before he became governor, Christie was a federal prosecutor with a record of fighting corruption and the mob. He exudes "Jersey attitude", as befits natives of a streetwise, unlovely state whose other famous sons include Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, not to mention the fictional Tony Soprano. Yet he is a natural speaker, with the politician's gift of making listeners feel he is talking to them personally.

But there are more basic reasons why Christie is the talk of his party. One is its dissatisfaction at the choices on offer. Mitt Romney? Looks the part, but a pandering flip-flopper. Mike Huckabee? A lightweight. Tim Pawlenty? Never heard of him. Ditto John Thune. Newt Gingrich? An unguided missile. Jeb Bush? Terrific, but with that surname, no way. As for Sarah Palin, she's a star, but she's unelectable.

Even more important, Christie not only talks the Republican talk, he pretty much walks the walk. From Obama and the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, down, everyone warns of the desperate need to rein in the deficit, but not much is actually happening.

This, however, could be a messy political spring. Forget the President's fiscal 2012 budget proposals unveiled last week. Deadlock between the House and the Democratic-controlled Senate over the current year's budget, presented 12 months ago but still not passed, could lead to the first federal government shutdown since 1995.

In the states, many of them near bankruptcy, similar crises have already exploded. More than 25,000 people protested in Wisconsin on Thursday at the plans of the Republican governor to slash pensions and healthcare benefits of public workers – exactly the issues at stake in the national debate over social security and the government-run Medicare and Medicaid programmes. Similar turmoil, and possible shutdowns, could happen in other cash-strapped states such as Ohio, Missouri... and New Jersey.

Christie's Democratic predecessor had vowed to sleep on a fold-away bed in his office until a budget deal was reached. Not the current governor. In a riff that could have been delivered at the Sopranos' kitchen table, he warned New Jersey Democrats: "You close down this government, I'm goin' back to the governor's residence, gonna get a beer, gonna order a pizza, gonna watch the Mets. And when you decide to reopen the government, gimme a call and I'll come back. But I ain't sleeping on some cot."

Chris Christie may not be a candidate – but when Republicans hold their convention in Tampa, Florida, in August 2012, don't bet against him delivering the most hilarious keynote ever.