Gov. Chris Christie, the outspoken New Jersey Republican whose popularity soared after Superstorm Sandy, said Tuesday that 41,000 storm-affected families remained displaced from their homes, while calling for a "full, clean Sandy aid bill" to pass quickly through Congress.
"We have waited 72 days, seven times longer than victims of Hurricane Katrina waited," Christie said in his annual State of the State address before a joint legislative session in Trenton.
"One thing I hope everyone now clearly understands---New Jersey, both Republicans and Democrats, will never stand silent when our citizens are being short-changed."
His speech homed in on the effects of the storm, which barreled into New Jersey on October 29 and left lawmakers in the nation's capital wrangling over how to best address a $60 billion aid package.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has emerged as a leading voice pressing Congress to pass the full measure to repair damaged infrastructure and help residents and business owners affected by the storm.
"We have stood with the citizens of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, Vermont, California and Missouri in their times of need --- now I trust that they will stand with us," Christie said."
The latest tally from the storm put damages to the state at $36.9 billion, with more than 340,000 homes damaged or destroyed and nearly 1,400 vessels that either sank or were abandoned in state waterways, Christie's office said.
Congress last week approved $9.7 billion in immediate assistance after delays brought on by fiscal cliff bickering, warnings of dwindling federal funds and controversy over millions of dollars for unrelated projects. The measure passed the House, 354-67. The Senate passed it unanimously and without debate.
Congress is expected to consider $51 billion in broader aid later this month.
Christie, alongside Republican and Democratic lawmakers from New York and New Jersey, heaped criticism on House Republicans for having earlier shelved the bill.
"New Jersey deserves better than the duplicity we saw on display," he said last week, adding that this is "why the American people hate Congress."
Christie's comments, as well as his earlier praise of the Obama administration's response to the storm, have raised questions about whether the he will remain a rising star within the GOP.
Yet his public leadership role after the storm also probably contributed to a surge in his home-state popularity.
"Some things are above politics," Christie said Tuesday. "Sandy was and is one of those things."
According to a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind survey, 73% of registered voters say they approve of the job Christie is doing as governor.
His approval rating is his second-highest in Fairleigh Dickinson polling, down just four points from his 77% level in the days after Sandy slammed into his state.
The survey also indicated that nearly two-thirds of residents say the state is headed in the right direction, with only 26% saying it's on the wrong track.
"The state is facing significant challenges in the post-Sandy era. Yet voters appear largely pleased with not only where the state is headed, but are even happier with the governor's leadership," said Krista Jenkins, director of PublicMind and professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "It's hard to find such a well-liked political figure in this politically rancorous day and age."
Analysts say the recent groundswell of support may have also led Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who's thought to be a rising Democratic star capable of unseating Christie, to announce that he would not be running for the governorship. Booker said he would instead run to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a fellow Democrat, when his term is up in 2014.
Still, New Jersey's Democratic-dominated legislature has worked to block many of Christie's initiatives, including judicial appointments and tax reforms.
Considered a budget maven who has drawn contentious battles with union leaders -- especially the teachers' union -- his office on Tuesday blasted the prior administration's "fiscal mismanagement" while hailing its own ability to pass a balanced budget.