When Chris Christie walked into the Assembly chamber to deliver his State of the State message his reputation for being a different kind of governor – one always itching for a fight – accompanied him.
In his first year Christie had made it clear he harbored no self-doubts and was all to ready to stiff-arm anybody who got in his way. Some saw him as a bully.
So how would this blunt, confrontational governor handle himself in what was his first serious talk to the public and lawmakers about the state's condition?
When Christie walked out of the Assembly Chamber about 45 minutes later it was as a leader who is passionate about righting what's wrong with the state; a leader willing to fight to see his vision of the state's future become reality.He was engaging, non-threatening, reasonable and perhaps most important he came promising a future packed with hope for a better life and a reputation to deliver what he promises.
On top of that, he was generously bipartisan saying that during his first year Democratic legislators had been vital partners in "turning our state around."
When he spoke his final words, there could be no doubt that he's the best politician New Jersey has seen in a generation.
Privately even Democrats had to be impressed – and a bit scared – with what they witnessed. Not since Tom Kean has there been a state politician so adept at connecting with the people, so accomplished at communicating.
Even though Christie keeps trying to submerge talk about national office, his state of the state performance is sure to see that issue surface again.
Near the end of his address he gave a nod to Ronald Reagan, who he noted was one of his political heroes. His speech was in many ways one Reagan might have given.
Reagan's political genius was to keep things simple – zero in on a just few goals.
In his speech Christie channeled Reagan, jettisoned the traditional grocery list of proposals that past governors have made in state of the state messages.
Instead Christie centered on just three issues: fiscal stability, pension and health care fixes and education reform.
He said the task of putting the state's fiscal house in order is a continuing one and will require tough decisions by him and the lawmakers. The state has a long-term deficit problem that can't be solved in a year or two, he noted.
When it comes to pensions and health benefits there can be no doubt that those programs must be restructured if they are to remain viable, he said.
"Reform today or risk disaster tomorrow," he warned the lawmakers.
The governor reiterated his position that he wasn't attempting to take away pensions or medical care but rather through sensible changes trying to guarantee that those benefits will always be available.
As for education, Christie said money doesn't equal better achievement, noting New Jersey spends an average of $17,600 per student – more than any other state – but doesn't post the test scores to match that national ranking.
The state, he said, has been cheating students by being more concerned with protecting underperforming teachers than educating kids.
The schools need reform starting with establishment of a merit pay system for teachers. Education, he said, is the only profession in which there is no reward for excellence and no punishment for failure. Along with that, he called for an end to tenure.
Christie even had an answer for those critics who claim he's the Trenton tyrant. He admitted that he sometimes does get carried away but there's a good reason for all his passion.
"I'll fight when it matters," he said arguing it had nothing to do with gaining political power but rather with families and individuals who are affected by failed state policies.
"This isn't about politics, this is about their lives," he said convincingly.
One fight he did suspend was that with the Legislature. He spent much of the fall traveling around the state ridiculing the Democratic lawmakers for wasting time on relatively minor pieces of legislation while major issues were left unaddressed.
But in his speech, Christie was effusive in his praise for what the Democrats and he working together have accomplished.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, he said, used the last year to begin restoring the public's faith that bipartisan government is possible.
"We haven't always agreed and not always gotten what we want," he said but the result has been good for the people of New Jersey.
That air of cooperation permeated the Assembly Chamber. As he walked out of the room, Christie shook hands and shared laughs with some he has stiff armed in the past including Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Democratic State Party Chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
How long that will last remains uncertain. During next fall's legislative campaign, Christie won't be saying nice things about the Democrats. Rather he'll be making the argument that the voters need to give him a Republican majority in the legislature so he can accomplish even more for the state's residents.
After seeing how good Christie is at delivering his message Democrats have a good reason to be worried.
Josh McMahon is a former member of The Star-Ledger's editorial board and had served as the paper's political editor.