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May 9, 2013

Christie weight-loss step may be key to a presidential campaign

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's acknowledgment of having secret stomach surgery may reassure voters who've wondered whether he's fit to be president.

The governor, who has struggled with excess pounds for most of his adult life, told reporters in Newark Tuesday that he had the procedure Feb. 16 for the benefit of himself, his wife, Mary Pat, and their children. He denied it was a political move.

"Just because I have a public office and I have some measure of notoriety doesn't mean that my feelings about my family and my concerns about their future are any different than yours," Christie said. "I did it because I want to try to put myself, as I get older, in the best position I can be to spend as much great time with them as I possibly can."

The 50-year-old governor is running to win a second term in November. He turned down fundraisers' overtures to embark on a 2012 presidential campaign less than two years ago, saying, "Now is not my time." Christie hasn't ruled out a 2016 bid.

"He has to realize that it's a lot easier to run for president if you can actually run," said Matthew Hale, who teaches politics at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "It also has to be in the back of his mind that the physical requirements of walking through Iowa county fairs and things like that really are not easy."

Christie, who's about 6 feet tall, hasn't publicly disclosed his weight and didn't say how much he may have lost since February. He said he considered the matter personal, and his family "is not thrilled" that the surgery, first reported by the New York Post, became public.

The governor said he used a false name when he checked in for the 40-minute surgical procedure at New York University Langone Medical Center's Weight Management Program in Manhattan. The operation was covered by his state health insurance, he said. He wouldn't say what his out-of-pocket costs were.

He went into the hospital at 7:30 a.m. and was home in Mendham at 5 p.m., he said. He didn't transfer his state powers to Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.

Christie said he spoke with coach Rex Ryan of the New York Jets before having the surgery. Ryan underwent the procedure in 2010, performed by surgeon George Fielding, and lost almost a third of his weight, according to the Post. Christie had Fielding do his operation.

A telephone call to the doctor's office was referred to Craig Andrews, a hospital spokesman, who declined to comment. Jets spokesman Bruce Speight didn't respond to a voice message and email seeking comment.

"It is a long-term health issue for me, and that is the basis on which I made the decision," Christie said Tuesday. "It's not a career issue."

Physical fitness for presidents and candidates for the office has been stressed by advisers since at least the administration of Gerald R. Ford, the Republican who replaced Richard M. Nixon in the White House in 1974. Ford, caught on camera as he stumbled on the Air Force One steps, was mocked for "being a klutz," said Peter Woolley, who teaches politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, N.J.

"The White House countered and said, 'What are you talking about?'" Woolley said by telephone. "This guy's an athlete. He was a Division I football player."

Al Gore, Democrat Bill Clinton's vice president, and Mike Huckabee, the Republican former Arkansas governor, both lost pounds before campaigning unsuccessfully for president. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who survived torture in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp and three bouts with skin cancer, was dogged by health questions before Democrat Barack Obama beat him in the 2008 presidential race.

On Feb. 4, less than two weeks before Christie had his surgery, he appeared on CBS Corp.'s "Late Show with David Letterman," munching a doughnut as a gag. He told the comedian that he had normal cholesterol and sugar levels in his blood, calling himself "basically the healthiest fat guy you've ever seen in your life."

 His comments led a former White House physician, Connie Mariano, to tell CNN that the governor's weight put him at risk of heart attack, stroke or death. Christie responded by calling the doctor a "hack" and telling her to "shut up" because she hadn't examined him.

For Christie, the prime political benefit now is that he "owns and controls" the story of his weight, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, N.J.

"Why give voters fodder for questions of your ability to serve, whether that means your physical fitness or ability to keep yourself under control?" Murray said by telephone. "You can't get around the fact that being overweight raises questions in people's minds, whether that's right or wrong."

Christie's weight hasn't been an issue to most New Jersey voters recently. In a Quinnipiac University poll released March 26, 64 percent of 1,129 of those asked said they were comfortable with the governor's girth.

 In July 2011, Christie went to a hospital for emergency treatment of his chronic asthma and told reporters when he was discharged that his weight "exacerbates everything."

More than 500 million people worldwide are obese, according to the World Health Organization. About 200,000 Americans undergo weight-loss surgery each year, and roughly a third choose gastric banding, involving small rubber devices that constrict part of the stomach.

              

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