New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose combative conservatism in a Democratic state has made him a Republican folk hero, on Tuesday praised Mitt Romney as a leader who will tell "hard truths" about the need to rein in government.
Selected to set the tone for this year's Republican National Convention, Christie delivered a keynote speech that accused Democrats of ducking the tough decisions on federal spending that he said Americans are ready and willing to confront.
"Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular, to do what is easy and say 'yes,' rather than to say no when 'no' is what's required," said Christie, who spoke a few hours after Romney officially became the Republican presidential nominee.
Christie was elected governor in 2009, one year after Barack Obama carried New Jersey by 15 points. In office, he has fought teachers unions and other critics with relish while enacting spending cuts and opposing tax hikes.
Christie spoke of his working-class roots and his late mother's advice that "there would be times in your life when you have to choose between being loved and being respected."
Christie said his mother was talking about women, but her words also applied to leadership.
"We are demanding that our leaders stop tearing each other down, and work together to take action on the big things facing America," said Christie, whose prepared remarks referred to "Mr. President" twice but didn't mention President Obama by name.
"Tonight, we're going to do what my mother taught me, we're going to choose respect over love," he said. "We are not afraid. We are taking our country back."
Speaking just after Romney's wife gave a speech emphasizing the softer side of her businessman husband, Christie depicted the Republican nominee's harder edge.
"Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on the path to growth and create good-paying private sector jobs again in America," Christie said.
"Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the torrent of debt that is compromising our future and burying our economy. Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world's greatest health care system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor."
Christie was the final speaker on an evening in which the GOP showcased six other governors — but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott didn't appear at the convention because of Tropical Storm Isaac's brush with Florida this week, but even before the storm scrambled Republican scheduling, Scott was slated to be a featured speaker on Monday, rather than appearing with the parade of governors.
Republicans occupy the governor's mansions in 29 states, and the party has long extolled the problem-solving prowess and outside-the-Beltway virtues of governors.
"While the president talks, Republican governors lead," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. "Talk is cheap. Results matter. Conservative fiscal policies are working, and so are more Americans in states with Republican governors today. Now, just think what we can do if we had a president who would support us, not obstruct us."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has tangled with his state's public employee unions and survived a recall election this year, received some of the loudest ovations of the day when he announced Wisconsin's delegate count in the afternoon and again when he spoke in the evening.
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland was in town earlier in the day to offer an opposing view to Christie and the Republicans.
"What we know will be lost in the bluster of tonight's speech are these simple facts: neither Governor Christie nor Mitt Romney has a record of creating jobs or strengthening the middle class," O'Malley said.
Despite O'Malley's criticisms, Republicans clearly believe their governors present a positive, can-do image to voters.
"They have to deal with executive decisions, deal with legislatures, deal with bureaucracies. … They've had to deal with adversity, tough budgets," said John Sununu, the former George H.W. Bush White House chief of staff who was governor of New Hampshire in the 1980s.
"They've been willing to take on hard issues and haven't avoided hard decisions. And it stands in contrast because today you have a president who doesn't make hard decisions," Sununu said in an interview. Later, in a convention speech, he described Obama as "a president who prefers to lead from behind."
Alberta Darling, a state senator and convention delegate from Wisconsin, praised Walker for his clashes with Wisconsin unions.
"He's a rock star on the national stage because he had the guts to take on the special-interest groups to do what he said he was going to do, which is control spending without raising taxes. He's a reformer," said Darling, who was also targeted for recall but kept her seat.
"I think (voters) will take away that the Republican Party has governors who have ideas to change the future of our country, we'll get control of debt and deficits, grow the economy and grow jobs and that's what the American people are so hungry for — leadership that will make the tough decisions," Darling said.