Last year Gov. Chris Christie wasn't invited to CPAC. This year he addressed the American Conservative Union's annual meeting on its opening day. The New Jersey governor didn't say anything that will keep him from getting invited back. As my Slate colleague David Weigel has pointed out, this is the least surprising news in politics. Christie wasn't going to get booed, and he wasn't going to do anything that might risk that reaction. For a politician trying to unite the party around the areas where they agree, there were plenty of ways he could appeal to the conservative audience on issues like abortion, unions and a shared dislike for the media. Unity was important, Christie said, not just because it meant the party could focus on its actual accomplishments, but also because it kept the GOP from fighting among itself when the opposition was so much worse.
Oh, and let's not forget President Obama. Though Christie has taken grief from conservatives for cozying up to Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he was clear to point out that he was no friend to the president. He never mentioned the Sandy episode, but instead talked about the supercommittee and the president's refusal to engage with its work. “If that's the attitude, Mr. President, then what the hell are we paying you for?”
On Thursday, the political task before Christie was to get a good reception from a skeptical crowd without saying anything that might be used against him in a 2016 presidential bid. He achieved that modest goal. The Democratic Party, in its instant analysis of Christie's Conservative Political Action Conference speech, couldn't actually find anything noteworthy in the speech. It criticized him for what he “didn't talk about.”
The first notable elision was Christie's defense of the Koch brothers, the wealthy backers of Americans for Prosperty, the pro-free-markets activist group. You wouldn't know that's who he was defending, because Christie never mentioned their names. Instead he attacked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been going after the Koch brothers by name and at length on the Senate floor. This attack on “two American entrepreneurs” was a sign of how pointless Washington had become, according to the governor. Reid should “get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating jobs.” No ad can be run in which Christie can be found praising the Koch brothers, whom liberals are working hard to make household names of horror.
When Christie stood up for his pro-life abortion views that was recognizable enough, but he didn't make a moral point about the sanctity of life. He turned the issue into a weapon to use against Democrats. When had they invited pro-life Democrats to speak at their conventions? Never, he pointed out. It was Republicans who have invited Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Tom Ridge to speak, all of whom support abortion rights. It was a sturdy partisan attack, but not one that would turn off a single pro-choice voter who might some day consider Christie.
This speech was of more than just passing interest because of last year's snub — in 2013, organizers thought Christie wasn't sufficiently conservative, though he'd spoken to the organization before — and because if Christie runs he'll have to find some way to woo grassroots conservatives who see him as the candidate of the establishment.
A recent Washington Post poll found that 30 percent of Republicans say they definitely would not vote for Christie, the highest percentage for any Republican tested. Among those who identified themselves as conservatives, 35 percent said they would not vote for him. Christie might have changed a few minds by not overtly offending anyone, but in a conference where so many speakers referred to the divisions within the party — especially the rift between the establishment and grassroots wings — there will be thousands of chances for Christie's fortunes to rise and fall among conservatives before he becomes the party's nominee or even before next year's CPAC.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.” He can be reached at email@example.com.