Chris Christie: Is New Jersey Governor Too Overweight to Become President?

VIDEO: David Letterman bashes Governor Chris Christie on his weight.
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For Chris Christie, there was no way around it. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm slightly overweight," he said during a debate in his successful campaign for governor.

Two years later, Christie is the man of the moment in presidential politics, with many powerful Republicans clamoring for him to run. But it has been 100 years since Americans sent a true heavyweight to the White House, when William Howard Taft tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds.

Nor is Christie just "slightly overweight." So there is no delicate way to ask this: Is Chris Christie too fat to win?

Politics, after all, is a business of image and first-impressions -- and study after study shows that people judge the hefty more harshly than they judge those who are thin.

"Overweight people have much less of a chance of getting a job, they have much less of a chance of keeping a job ... they are paid less than those who are thin," said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York.

"In this era of exercise, we impute moral failings to people who don't rein in their weight," he said. "Those prejudices are just intensified for people who seek elected office."

Indeed, John McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican political consultant, said he routinely advises his clients to watch what they eat.

"You don't want them to gain weight, to look poorly on television," he said.

The political stage is filled with candidates who have heard that message loud and clear.

Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, famously shed 110 pounds and penned a self-help book, "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," before plunging into the 2008 presidential race. He went on to tout his weight loss endlessly during the campaign.

In New York, more than a dozen overweight state legislators went on a very public battle of the bulge last year as they prepped for re-election.

"Voters would rather see someone whose belly isn't, you know, huge -- someone who is fit and trim," Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, an upstate Democrat, said at the time.

If a candidate is not "fit and trim," he might even face ridicule, as Christie recently did from late night talk show host David Letterman.

"You know who the Republicans want as their candidate is the tubby guy across the river, Chris Christie," Letterman said on "The Late Show," taped across the Hudson River from New Jersey in New York City. "You talk about tons of fun, here we go.

"I want Chris Christie in this race because just I want to be able to meaningfully say, 'Hey, bring it, fat boy!'" Letterman said later. "He's got to be close to 400 pounds. ... Take a look. ... Go to Google Earth."

Political scientists and strategists said they could not recall a truly heavy American politician finding great national success in the television age.

"Our candidates tend to be tall, they tend to have great hair," said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Center of Public Affairs. "This doesn't seem to be a business that, at the presidential level, willingly accepts people who are demonstrably overweight.

"Most people would look at Ronald Reagan say, 'This is a guy who looks like he could be president,'" he added.

Christie is an old hand in the political weight wars. In the 2009 race for New Jersey governor, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine not-so-subtly made Christie's plus size an issue.

Corzine broadcast a television ad showing unflattering images of Christie as the narrator intoned that Christie "threw his weight around" to avoid getting traffic tickets. To drive home the comparison, Corzine, a fitness buff, ran in 5K and 10K races during the campaign.

"I have struggled with my weight for the last 30 years on and off, and that's the way it is, and so I think there are a lot of people out in New Jersey who have the same kind of struggles," Christie told one interviewer.

Earlier this year, Christie talked openly with ABC News' Diane Sawyer about his weight and his effort to exercise more.

"What do you say to yourself to psych yourself into it?" Sawyer asked.

"Just look in the mirror, Diane," Christie replied. "OK, I have to get healthier and this job has really forced me, because it's such a draining job from the energy perspective."

Chris Christie's Weight: Disadvantage or Advantage?

Ironically, many strategists say Christie's weight could work to his advantage if he enters the presidential race.

At a time when many Americans are angry with Washington and fed up with politicians, Christie's weight allows him to stand apart from the political crowd, they said. It is an image Christie played to when he warned New Jerseyans to "get the hell off the beach" as Hurricane Irene approached in late August.

"People want something different, something out of the ordinary ... someone who is willing to stand up and confront problems," McLaughlin said "Being a picture-perfect candidate I don't think is as important anymore."

Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said Christie's weight could help him subliminally with voters, too.

"Maybe this is a time when you need someone to be a bull in a china shop," Muzzio said. "Well, bulls are big."

If there is a danger for Christie, it is that his weight might leave voters wondering about his health. In July, he went to the hospital with breathing problems and lightheadedness, forcing doctors to run an EKG test, take blood and x-ray his chest. The diagnosis: a bout of asthma.

Asked if rivals might use such episodes against him, Christie said at the time, "My political enemies are never at rest ... and if this is what they want to use, I think I'm having a pretty good week.

"Despite the well-chronicled issues with my weight, I've been relatively healthy by all objective indicators," he said.

McLaughlin, the Republican strategist, said he relishes the idea of Christie challenging President Obama.

"It would be a real visual contrast, where you have Barack Obama, who is in good shape, perceived as being buff and athletic, going against Chris Christie, who has problems with asthma, who is overweight," McLaughlin said.

"I'd argue it's a vision of government that is big, fat and out of control -- in contrast Christie, who is putting the government of New Jersey on a diet," he said, "The paradox is very interesting."

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