In the midst of his New Jersey gubernatorial campaign in October 2009, Chris Christie, facing a near-deadlocked race with Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine, was answering the same questions about the 300-pound monkey in the room – his weight. One pro-Corzine ad depicted that Christie “threw his weight around” on policy matters, referencing the current Garden State governor’s girth.
Christie’s weight proved not to be an issue and he would go on to defeat Corzine, using his more liberal views on some of his party’s general conservative issues and his straight-talk bravado to win over the electorate.
Fast forward to September 2011. The unease among the Republican base around the current field of presidential hopefuls coupled with Christie’s leadership during Hurricane Irene and his passing of an overhaul of the pensions and benefits for public workers have helped generate significant buzz around Christie for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
As Christie’s approval rating has seen a spike among New Jersey voters this week, the governor has become the flavor of the month among Republicans to run for president. But the issue of Christie’s weight has returned as has a perhaps shallow, yet valid, question of whether the country could elect an overweight person to the most stressful job in the world.
While he has never disclosed his weight, it’s safe to say that Christie would be the heaviest president of the modern age since William Howard Taft won more than 100 years ago, weighing in at a reported 332 pounds.
The traditional notion that the electorate seeks someone who looks presidential for this election cycle could be proven wrong, said Russell Riley, chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“If you look at [Rick] Perry and [Mitt] Romney standing side by side, they look almost like they’re out of central casting for some political figure in the presidential model,” Riley told CBSNewYork.com. “Because we’re in a time where there’s such a tremendous level of dissatisfaction of politics currently being practiced, one can at least make a case that anti-politicians, someone who doesn’t look like a politician, is someone we need.
“Christie could, in fact, benefit from that,” Riley added.
Whether Christie does eventually toss his hat into the ring of Republican nominees, his ability to engage in vigorous campaigning during his run at the governor’s office is one indication that he can at least handle a gubernatorial race, said Andrew Moesel, senior director of public policy at Sheinkopf Communications, a prominent New York Democratic political consulting firm. He added that whether that vigorous campaigning Christie had during his gubernatorial campaign would transfer over to the more stressful demands of a presidential campaign is uncertain.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study cited that more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese.
“Keep in mind what the average American looks like,” Moesel said. “They probably look more like Chris Christie… The idea that people can’t identify with him is misguided.”
That certainly doesn’t mean people are going to stop talking about it.
The concern for Christie’s health is the latest worry when looking at those who have recently pursued the Oval Office and those who have presided over it. Former President Bill Clinton has undergone a number of procedures in the 11 years since completing his two terms, including a quadruple bypass surgery in September 2004 and a March 2005 surgery for a partially collapsed lung. During the campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, and Mike Huckabee had to address their past bouts with melanoma and obesity, respectively. Even President Barack Obama’s smoking habit came under scrutiny during the 2008 campaign. In 2011, Texas Gov. Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have had to field questions on their health situations.
As pundits continue to run the rumor mill of a potential Christie run, whoever seizes the Republican nomination will be in line for a campaign and potential presidency that challenges a person’s health every day.
“Even someone in exceptional physical condition would find [the presidency] to be difficult,” Riley said. “If you’re not in top physical condition, you are, I think, going to find yourself in an even more difficult set of circumstances because all of these extraordinary rigors will weigh more on you than in a healthy body.”
Although the circumstances are different, the former questions the electorate once had about race in politics and the electability of a candidate based on his or her race may still apply to physical appearance.
“People’s personal dispositions and prejudices die hard,” said Riley, “but if the right candidate comes along, they can be overcome.”
(1010 WINS NY/Matzav.com Newscenter}