GOP’s colorful kickoff

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks with radio host Laura Ingraham.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie temporarily escaped his troubles at home, while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker drew an enthusiastic welcome on the first day of the annual gathering of conservative voters known as CPAC.

“If we can do it in Wisconsin, there is no doubt we can do it across America,” Walker told several thousand attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference, pointing to his record of battling unions, cutting taxes and reducing unemployment.

Walker came into the conference — viewed as the first vetting of Republican presidential candidates — already riding a political high. A Qunnipiac University poll released this week put Walker in first place among Republicans in Iowa with 25 percent, about twice the next challenger.

Christie, meanwhile, acknowledged that if it were “the elites in Washington who make backroom deals” who pick the party nominee, then former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be the clear GOP frontrunner in 2016.

But he also told the crowd if he does decide to run, he won’t concede the nomination to anyone. “I’ll take my chances,” Christie said. “I’ve done pretty well so far.”

“I’m still standing,” he said, a reference to being dogged by the media and scandals at home for months, most recently by a court ruling putting his plan to bolster New Jersey’s pension system in financial and legal trouble.

While Christie spoke early in the day, it was Walker who many came to see late in the afternoon. Much of his address was aimed at President Barack Obama and at Washington’s ills.

“Washington is 68 square miles surrounded by reality,” he said, adding, “Today we have a president who thinks we grow the economy by growing Washington.”

Walker played up his recent successes, including ending collective bargaining for public employees and moving Wisconsin toward becoming a right-to-work state.

“They tried to recall me; they made me the number one target, but in the end we showed we could fight and win for the hardworking taxpayer,” he said.

His loudest applause came when he boasted that Wisconsin passed voter ID, concealed carry and castle doctrine laws.

Christie was “interviewed” by radio host Laura Ingraham, taking 15 minutes of questioning, one on one, in the intimacy of the Gaylord Hotel Ballroom at the National Harbor. Others, like businesswoman Carly Fiorina, opted to give stump speeches at the podium.

Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was widely applauded for confronting presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s Washington record, saying Clinton is not the accomplished figure she portrays. “Mrs. Clinton, please name an accomplishment,” she said to boos directed at the former secretary of state.

Christie said reports of his political demise are greatly overstated, despite first facing “Bridgegate” over his staff orchestrating massive traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as political revenge, and now, the pension shortfall.

He blamed much of it on the media, particularly the New York Times, joking that he planned to give up the newspaper for Lent but his priest said it didn’t qualify. “Bad news: He said you have to give up something you’ll actually miss,” he said.

Several times Ingraham turned the questioning toward Bush as the perceived front-runner. Christie took issue with Bush’s comment that entrepreneurial immigrants could help bring Detroit back. He called abandoning current residents as “misdirecting the priorities.” Bush speaks to the group Friday.

Christie rejected the idea that he may be too quick-tempered to sit in the White House, saying that especially in Washington, sometimes people need to be told “to sit down and shut up,” a reference to his popular retort to a heckler during a New Jersey appearance.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551