The New Jersey governor was soon describing himself as the “the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life” and sharing private details about his cholesterol and blood sugar with Letterman. And in a flash, the Republican was countering a former White House doctor’s suggestion that his weight would present serious health risks if he were elected president.
By design or not, the 50-year-old ended up outlining a personal and political plan for dealing with his weight — in a more concentrated fashion, perhaps, than ever before, and in a matter of days. And he addressed a political vulnerability in his indisputable quest to emerge as a key leader in the Republican Party, if not become his party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
“There is a plan” for losing weight, Christie acknowledged, adding: “Whether it’s successful or not, you’ll all be able to notice.”
He has never publicly revealed his weight.
On Thursday, Christie was touring this seaside community as part of recovery efforts from Superstorm Sandy. It was unclear whether the focus earlier in the week about his weight — and his promise to control it — signaled his thinking as it related to a potential run for president or whether it was simply a continuation of the status quo for a man who has struggled with his size for three decades.
Regardless of the answer, the Republican’s candor on an issue he long has contended was personal — not political — showed a desire to frame the years-old debate over his outsize girth at a critical time in his political career and as the nation deals with an obesity epidemic. And how he handled questions about his weight amid the flurry of media attention suggested a strategy for dealing with the issue — self-deprecating humor, moments of reflection and a plan for taking responsibility for his health.
There were also moments of anger.
Christie bristled after a former White House physician, Dr. Connie Mariano, told CNN that his weight may present serious health risks for a president.
“I’m a Republican, so I like Chris Christie a lot. I want him to run. I just want him to lose weight,” Mariano said Tuesday. “I worry about this man dying in office.”
Christie later suggested that the doctor “should shut up” until she gives him a physical and takes his family history. “This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV,” he said.
Not content to castigate the physician on national television or in a news conference earlier in the week, the blunt-speaking Christie phoned the physician.
Mariano told KTVK-TV in Phoenix that the call from the governor was like his press conference, “only louder,” adding “he wasn’t very nice to me.”
Christie confirmed he made the call but declined to comment on the conversation, saying it was private.
After joking with Letterman, Christie struck a more personal tone with reporters: “The idea that somehow I don’t care about this, of course I care about it, and I’m making the best effort I can,” he said while acknowledging that dieting has been a regular part of his life for 30 years.
The focus on Christie’s weight comes as Republican celebrities across the country — and potential presidential candidates — jockey to emerge as leaders of a GOP that lacks a standard-bearer after Mitt Romney’s defeat.
Christie’s allies, medical professionals and even history suggest that his weight presents both practical and political problems.
Few significantly overweight presidential candidates have succeeded in the modern political era, when television became a major factor in shaping voter attitudes. There are disputed reports that President William Howard Taft couldn’t fit in a White House bathtub a century ago, but only a handful of presidents since have been considered obese. President Bill Clinton struggled at times with his weight, but he was substantially slimmer than the New Jersey governor.
Christie is running for re-election and is likely to be challenged by Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, a fit 59-year-old who runs, swims and works out regularly. He also has kept the door open to a possible White House run.
“I refuse to put it in political terms,” said Christie adviser Bill Palatucci. “He’s my friend first and foremost. I want to see him lose weight for himself and his family.” He and others say the issue is serious for health reasons, if not the public perception that his weight may impede his performance in one of the world’s most stressful jobs. But Palatucci also suggested that Christie’s weight — particularly his struggle to control it — could ultimately become a political asset.
“In many ways to most New Jersyans, it’s an endearing quality. It’s why this guy is genuine,” Palatucci said. “He readily admits he has a problem that he’s been struggling with for 30 years.”
So far, there’s no sign it has affected his political standing in New Jersey, where registered voters late last month gave him a record-high 74 percent approval rating, according to Quinnipiac University.
Christie also has other — potentially more serious — political liabilities, and whether he takes steps to address them in the coming months could signal his political intentions. His brash manner could alienate voters outside of New Jersey, and conservatives — who make up the presidential primary electorate — are angry over his emphatic praise of President Barack Obama’s response to Superstorm Sandy.
“He’ll have some challenges within the Republican Party just because he gave Obama a French kiss on the Jersey shore,” said Republican operative Hogan Gidley. “But there is also a perception issue for many candidates. Voters base their votes on some very odd things.”
Gidley knows well the political challenges facing overweight candidates, having previously worked for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former GOP presidential candidate who also struggled with obesity. After facing an ultimatum from his doctor, Huckabee lost more than 100 pounds and wrote a how-to book, “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork,” before launching his presidential bid in 2008.
Christie has never released his medical records — an action customary for presidential candidates — and he bristled when his size came up during the 2009 governor’s race.
He is hardly alone in his struggle. More than a third of adults 20 years old and older are obese and another third are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus doesn’t dispute that appearance matters for any national candidate, but he rejects the notion that Christie’s size is a liability.
“His struggles that he has talked about actually make him inspirational,” Priebus said Thursday. “I think he is extraordinarily smart. I think he’s a talented governor. And so he’s a little overweight. So what?”