Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasn't invited to The Conservative Political Action Conference. This year he addressed the American Conservative Union's annual meeting on its opening day. It should come as no surprise that he didn't say anything that will keep him from getting invited back. As a politician trying to unite Republicans around the areas where they agree, Christie found plenty of ways to appeal to the conservative audience on issues like abortion, unions and a shared dislike for the media. Unity was important, Christie said, not just because it lets the party focus on its actual accomplishments, but because it can keep Republicans from fighting among themselves when the opposition is so much worse.
And don't forget President Obama. Christie has taken grief from conservatives for cozying up to Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, but he was clear to point out that he is no friend to the president. He never mentioned Sandy, instead talking about the congressional budget supercommittee and the president's refusal to engage with it. "If that's the attitude, Mr. President, then what the hell are we paying you for?"
On Thursday, the political task before Christie was to get a good reception from a skeptical crowd without saying anything that might be used against him in a 2016 presidential bid. He achieved that modest goal. The Democratic Party, in its instant analysis of Christie's CPAC speech, couldn't actually find anything noteworthy in it. It criticized him for what he "didn't talk about."
The first notable omission was in Christie's defense of the Koch brothers, the wealthy backers of Americans for Prosperity, the pro-free-markets activist group. You wouldn't know that was who he was defending, because Christie never mentioned their names. Instead he attacked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has been going after the Koch brothers by name on the Senate floor. This attack on "two American entrepreneurs" was a sign of how pointless Washington had become, according to the governor. Reid should "get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating jobs." No ad can be run in which Christie can be found praising the Koch brothers, whom liberals are working hard to make household names of horror.
Christie stood up for his pro-life views, but he didn't make a moral point about the sanctity of life. He turned the issue into a weapon to use against Democrats. When had they invited pro-life Democrats to speak at their conventions? Never, he pointed out. It was Republicans who have invited Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Tom Ridge, all of whom support abortion rights. It was a sturdy partisan attack, but not one that would turn off a single pro-choice voter.
This speech was of more than just passing interest because of last year's snub - in 2013, organizers thought Christie wasn't sufficiently conservative - and because if Christie runs he'll have to find some way to woo grassroots conservatives who see him as part of the establishment.
A recent Washington Post poll found that 30 percent of Republicans say they definitely would not vote for Christie, the highest percentage for any Republican tested. Among those who identified themselves as conservatives, 35 percent said they would not vote for him. Christie might have changed a few minds by not overtly offending anyone, but there will be thousands of chances for Christie's fortunes to rise and fall among conservatives before the primaries - or even before next year's CPAC.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of "On Her Trail." Readers can mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.