As Chris Christie’s potential 2016 rivals bask in the national spotlight as they make – or plan to make – their presidential bids official, the New Jersey governor finds himself amid fireworks back home.
Like several of his town hall meetings this year, there was no mention of 2016 at his 133rd such event in Kenilworth on Tuesday and topics were local in nature – from new standardized testing in schools, to the state’s beleaguered pension system, to historical restoration, to the scrapped tunnel project between New York and New Jersey.
There were, however, a few tense moments – from a group of protesters yelling “Arrest Christie!” and a woman who told the governor, “I’m not here to be bullied” when asking about pensions and a controversial state settlement with ExxonMobile.
Meanwhile, the picture is very different for several other Republicans who have garnered a lot of national attention — and money – by either officially jumping into the race like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, or making plans to within the next two weeks. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is expected to announce his 2016 intentions on April 7 with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida following suit on April 13.
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The Garden State governor has said that he’ll make a decision by the late spring or early summer. Mike DuHaime, Christie’s top political strategist told msnbc that the recent decisions by Cruz, Paul and Rubio to announce their candidacy this early in the game would have no bearing on what the governor does.“He has his own timetable which won’t be affected by anyone else who may or may not be getting into the race,” said DuHaime.
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who advised Sen. John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign, said Christie still “has to be getting antsy right now” with several other conservatives entering the 2016 fray, especially Rubio, who – like Christie – is considered one of the more moderate Republicans. O’Connell suggested that while Christie’s ability to raise money could be hurt by waiting, there are still some advantages.
After all, Christie’s approval ratings as governor are at an all-time low, and two big debates rage in his state – one over the budget and the other over how to solve the state’s beleaguered pension system. Nationally, this year has been rough for him, too, with controversial remarks about vaccinations, a New York Times report detailing the governor’s questionable luxury trips, and headlines about the scandal known as “Bridgegate” continuing to trickle.
“With other candidates making their formal intentions known, combined with the fact that his approval ratings and popularity continues to be not what it was once, it’s harder for him to enter the race in a real positive way,” said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “Waiting for a bit of good news before he would venture into talking about entering isn’t a bad idea.”
Harrison noted that the town hall format is one Christie can do very well in. The governor kept his cool on Tuesday when interrupted by protesters, simply ignoring them until they were escorted out. He assured the woman who accused him of bullying her that his state benefits plan “doesn’t reduce your pension one dime.” He garnered plenty of smiles when answering questions from two young girls who asked what the governor’s favorite color is (blue) and his top dessert pick (ice-cream).
Outside of the town halls, Christie is certainly laying the groundwork for a campaign, even if an official announcement is still months away. His allies have announced plans to create a super political action committee to help Christie’s presidential campaign raise an unlimited amount of cash, and Christie is quickly beginning to build teams in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire and has traveled to states like Florida and Texas for fundraisers.
Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor’s leadership PAC, told msnbc that Christie will be in New Hampshire on April 14-15 “to meet with community leaders to discuss important issues facing our country like entitlement reform.” The governor is expected to return to the Granite State – which is emerging as a do-or-die state for Christie—on April 17-18 to speak at the First in the National Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua. A number of Christie’s potential competitors will also be at that summit, including Rubio, Cruz, Paul, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Earlier this month, on a New Jersey radio show called “Ask the Governor,” Christie insisted he had still not made up his mind about whether to run for the nation’s highest office, saying the decision would be based on three areas of priority: whether it was right for him, right for his family and right for the country. When asked if he thought he could realistically beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, he said, “There’s no reason to run unless you think you can. If I ran, I wouldn’t be in it for the experience.”