TAMPA — Before Tuesday night, most of what Americans knew about Chris Christie has involved fights with teachers' unions, his rougher-edged New Jersey approach to politics, and the fact that some Republicans wanted him to run for president. They may have seen a video of him following a heckler on a beach.
That all changed.
With his party anxious over a storm descending on the Gulf Coast hundreds of miles away, Christie delivered the Republican National Convention's keynote address — an event that was anticipated for months by his supporters, his advisers and his party.
But with Hurricane Isaac expected to land in Louisiana, the part of Christie's persona that is often compared to such a storm was uncharacteristically muted.
It was unlikely even before Isaac that Christie would repeat his performance at a January New Hampshire town hall event with Mitt Romney, when he shouted down a heckler by bellowing, "Something's going down tonight, but it ain't jobs, sweetheart!"
Christie's coming-out party here in Tampa is not only a rallying cry for Republicans, but also a possible springboard for a 2016 campaign, though his aides would never say it, if President Barack Obama wins another term.
"His job is to talk to the delegates in a minor way, but the nation as a whole, as to why this man is the best (candidate) for president," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, one of Christie's closest advisers and himself a former Republican National Committee keynote speaker.
"First of all, it's very significant for the state," Kean added. "For a state to have a keynote speaker is unusual. … It's a very proud moment."
Christie spent the past two days preparing for his speech addressing delegation breakfasts here in Tampa, meeting dutifully with the local reporters that came from New Jersey en masse, and then granting interviews to the networks for the morning shows. Aides reportedly prevented one of the New York Post reporters, who wrote a controversial story about him earlier this week claiming he didn't want to be the vice presidential nominee, from attending the briefing with local reporters.
Christie's aides have stayed focused on selling Romney and have sought to downplay questions about the New Jersey governor's future — a task that was made more complicated by the Post front-page splash earlier this week claiming he didn't want to be the VP pick in part because he thinks Romney will lose. (His advisers denied that strongly.)
Christie was one of Romney's earliest endorsers in the primary, and he has indeed worked hard on behalf of the nominee.
The New Jersey governor's speech, read in advance by Romney and written by Christie himself with input from a few top advisers, was Christie's first opportunity to present himself beyond the Saturday Night Live caricature of himself or the images of him as a union buster.
"He's well known in New Jersey, he's well known in Republican circles, he's extremely popular, but he's not really well known by the rest of America," said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who keynoted the 2004 convention in New York City.
Giuliani, who went wildly off-prompter for the final minutes of his speech that year, said that Christie was "the perfect choice." He cited Christie's humor, something that has been on display in media interviews but also in the New Jersey town halls, seen repeatedly on YouTube videos that his staff uploads.
But Christie also had a "delicate" task, Giuliani said, of contrasting Romney with a weak incumbent to the crowd watching elsewhere in the country, while sounding a somber note that appeals to independents, especially with the specter of Isaac looming.
For Christie — just like Ann Romney, another speaker Tuesday — the TelePrompTer posed the biggest hurdle, Kean said.
"He's never had a chance to address an audience this large," Kean said. "This is a set speech, and he's usually off the cuff. It's a challenge."
Yet what this moment means for Christie, as opposed to Romney, was clear in some of his interviews.
"I'll be talking about the New Jersey experience and what that means for the country, what it can mean and promise for the country. They'll be some other stuff I'll be talking about, too. But I'll be ready when I walk out on that stage tonight," he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.
"I think that if the American people watch tonight and leave the speech by saying, 'Yup, that's him, that's who I've heard about. He seems genuine to me,' then I think I will have done my job for me, and if they say, 'I like the vision he's laid out for the country and for his party for the next four years,' then I will have done the job for my party and my country," he said.
And Democrats spent much of Tuesday counter-messaging.
"It's curious that they would have a governor whose unemployment rate is, I think, the third or fourth highest in the country extolling the job-creation virtues of his nominee," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, the Democratic Governors Association chairman, told POLITICO during his visit to Tampa.
"So Christie would like you to believe that he's making tough choices and doing all these things to create utopia in New Jersey … he acts like he's the only governor who has enacted pension reforms. Many of us have done it without belittling and demeaning public employees."
Early Tuesday morning, Christie had the crowd enraptured at a Michigan GOP breakfast, telling a story about Romney spending time with his 8-year-old daughter when he came to New Jersey to seek the governor's endorsement last year.
Christie talked about preparing his home for Romney's arrival so it looked less messy. He talked about his daughter misbehaving because she wanted attention. He talked about his working wife, who is also the mother of four kids.
Those stories were a reminder of the extent to which Christie has a quality that is elusive to so many politicians, including Romney — an ability to connect with voters a very real way.