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Jersey Comeback’s inopportune snag

Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie landed the plummest of plum speaking roles at this month’s Republican National Convention in Tampa – a slot that affirms his status as a major national political figure in 2012 and beyond. (Remember a guy named Obama who keynoted the 2004 Democratic National Convention?)

Back home, though, things aren’t as rosy.

Christie has seen his approval rating rise to rare heights this year and grown fond of citing the “Jersey Comeback,” his term for the state’s economic recovery and revitalization.

But he has now seen that comeback start to roll back. And quickly.

The unemployment rate in New Jersey has risen over the last two months, to 9.8 percent in July, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s the highest the state’s unemployment rate has been in 35 years and a very sharp increase for non-recession times. It’s also significantly higher than the national average (8.3 percent). New Jersey is one of just two states – the other being New York – where the unemployment rate is higher than it has been in the last four years.

Christie’s office points out that they are hardly alone in experiencing rising unemployment – 43 other states joined them in July – and that the number is a preliminary estimate.

It also notes that the state has experienced job growth in 9 of the last 11 months (which, as a side note, sounds a lot like the argument President Obama’s team is making these days about the national economy).

But the topline number is not good for Christie. And it comes at an inopportune time.

He is now a week away from delivering the keynote address at the GOP convention – a podium from which he would love to hail the virtues of the “Jersey Comeback” and start building his case for the future.

It could also hurt the GOP’s overall message. With Mitt Romney looking to play economic Mr. Fix-It in the 2012 election, his keynote speaker in Tampa is no longer looking like an expert mechanic.

Christie’s approval ratings in New Jersey remain very strong for now, but rising unemployment has a way of sending the chief executive’s approval rating in the opposite direction.

The question, though, is whether the news of the Garden State’s economic slowdown becomes a major part of the story in the runup to Christie’s speech.

Luckily for the GOP, Christie’s verbal skills and style have been a large part of what makes him popular. And an effective communicator can talk his way through tough times.

Indeed, Democrats have been crying foul for months that Christie has been given credit for the “Jersey Comeback” – which they argue amounts to a giant nothingburger.

Whether you agree with that or not, it’s clear that his personal style, combativeness and communications strategy have paid dividends when it comes to his image.

That image remains strong in his state and nationally, but the economic facts on the ground may complicate the “Jersey Comeback” storyline.

Aaron Blake is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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