Chris Christie's biggest fight may be weight as job strains willpower
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TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, has won concessions from the state's public-employee unions. He's stopped the Democratic-controlled Legislature from raising taxes. He's put hecklers in their place.
The first-term Republican has yet to win one of his biggest battles: shedding weight.
Christie, who turns 50 on Sept. 6 and will give the keynote speech at this week's Republican National Convention, told Oprah Winfrey in January that he was working with a dietitian and exercising four days a week. Since that interview, he shows no signs of slimming down.
"He's gotten a bit heavier," said John Catsimatidis, the billionaire supermarket tycoon who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Christie.
About a year after spurning a run for president -- and being hospitalized for asthma that he said was aggravated by his size -- Christie will take on a political role that in 2004 set Barack Obama on a path to the White House.
Christie contrasts with presidents, vice presidents and White House candidates who have sought to convey an image of health and fitness in a nation where two-thirds of the population are overweight.
Obama plays basketball and Vice President Joe Biden works out regularly. Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, uses an elliptical machine, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, follows the grueling P90x fitness routine. Former President George W. Bush, who nicknamed Christie "Big Boy," ran the 1993 Houston Marathon in three hours and 44 minutes.
"We live in a media age in which there are these conventional expectations of what a successful individual looks like," said Russell Riley, chairman of the Miller Center's Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia. "The closer you comport with those kind of cultural ideas about how someone on television looks, the better you do."
As Christie's national profile grows, his weight has become fodder for late-night comedians and social media users. It also was addressed by "his personal advisers," said Catsimatidis, 63, who wouldn't specify further.
"Remember: I have the same problem," said Catsimatidis, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 275 pounds.
The governor, who is the same height, declined to be interviewed or to answer questions about his weight. Photographs and video taken when he was a U.S. prosecutor five years ago and this week show that he has become larger.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on whether Christie is following any weight-loss regimen, saying the matter is personal.
During a radio interview last year, Christie said that he doesn't like talking about his weight because "you're setting yourself up for failure." His most candid discussions of the topic were during nationally televised interviews with Winfrey and CNN's Piers Morgan.
"I don't like being overweight," Christie told Winfrey. "I know I'd be healthier and better off if I weren't."
Christie has said his struggle with weight began 30 years ago when he stopped playing organized school sports. During a February 2011 radio interview, the married father of four said he was trying to lose weight "so I can watch my two daughters get married, so that I can see grandchildren when I get older."
In July 2011, Christie's shortness of breath related to chronic asthma forced a detour to a hospital emergency room on the way to a news conference. When he was released after eight hours, he faced a barrage of questions from the national media about his health. He said his weight "exacerbates everything" and that he was working with a personal trainer.
"I'm sure it frustrates the heck out of him" that he hasn't been able to slim down, Katherine Tallmadge, a dietitian and weight-loss counselor who has worked with members of Congress and White House staffers, said. "These really successful people, it drives them crazy — there's one thing they haven't been able to overcome."
Ed Rendell, the Pennsylvania Democrat whose taste for a high-calorie Philadelphia specialty sandwich earned him the nickname "Governor Cheesesteak," said the job comes with long hours and exercise-disrupting travel.
"There's all this free food, and food that gets passed right in front of you," said Rendell, 68. When he reached 260 pounds, his son Jesse suggested that he get healthy. He said he lost 60 pounds mostly by reducing portions.
"Is it harder for politicians who live that type of schedule than the ordinary person to lose weight? Yes," he said. "Is it an excuse and a justification if they want to? No."
Former President Bill Clinton, 66, was once a fan of fast food. After he underwent quadruple cardiac bypass surgery in 2004 and had two stents placed in a clogged artery in 2010, he adopted a vegan diet.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, R, who ran for president in 2008, lost 110 pounds through diet and exercise after being diagnosed with diabetes. He went on to complete marathons and champion wellness programs, including taking junk food out of schools.
Christie has shown a willingness to joke at his own expense, exaggerating to radio host Don Imus that he weighed 550 pounds and referring to "my big, fat rear end."
It was a strategy once used by Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who has maintained a weight loss of more than 100 pounds since the 1990s.
"It bothers you until it makes your feelings numb — you just block it out," said Ackerman, who admires Christie for exposing himself "to greater observation and more criticism than people in other fields would get, and put up with it."
Christie told Winfrey that the weight issue hurt him more when he was younger and that he has "developed a bit of a shell" about it in public life. His official website includes the line "David Letterman Fat Jokes — 327,832" in a post that also tallies bills signed and letters received.
The first Republican elected New Jersey governor since 1997, Christie became a national political figure for raising public employee contributions to pensions and benefits, vetoing tax increases against millionaires and leveling insults at critics during "Jersey-style" confrontations.
In July, gossip website TMZ.com showed video of him shouting at a detractor who used profanity as Christie was buying an ice cream cone on the Seaside Heights boardwalk with his kids and their friends. Letterman, who has made Christie the topic of monologues and "Top 10" lists, set the confrontation to "fat guy music" and said that angering Christie is like "crossing a rhino."
"My kids think it's incredibly cool that, like, David Letterman even knows who I am," Christie said during a January press conference. "I don't really let it bother me all that much if at all."
Christie has campaigned across the nation for Romney and other Republican candidates. More than half of all registered voters in his home state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans, approve of the job he is doing as governor.
The focus on Christie's weight "is an asset," said Mark McKinnon, an adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during his 2008 run for president.
"Voters today find so little they can believe, they put a real premium on anything they perceive as authentic," McKinnon said. "Governor Christie's weight just makes him more human, more real, and, therefore, more credible."
Christie has "enormous energy and discipline," said his friend state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R, chairman of Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign.
"He runs circles around almost everyone else I know, me included," Kyrillos said. "That's the way he produces so much and that's why he's so successful."