New Jersey Governor Chris Christie delivers a speech at an event in Rolling Meadows, Ill., on Feb. 12, 2015.
Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Chris Christie, between a rock and a Granite State

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – once a rising star in the GOP and a man the party elite all but begged to run in 2012 – has fallen to the back of the pack of emerging 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls, all while being battered by lousy poll numbers and economic problems in the Garden State. But Christie’s political salvation may not be far away from his native New Jersey. And that’s why he’s setting his sights on New Hampshire.

Christie will be all over the early-voting state for an action-packed week – meeting with community leaders, holding two of his signature town hall events, hosting restaurant meet and greets, and delivering a speech on entitlement reform – before joining many of his potential 2016 competitors at the “First in the Nation” Republican summit in Nashua.

The trip to New Hampshire, which is emerging as a do-or-die state for Christie – a northeastern moderate who experts say would face difficulties in other critical early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina (where voters tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives) – is coming at a crucial time. GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have officially jumped into the race, with Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida expected to announce his intentions on Monday in the early evening. On the Democratic side, front-runner Hillary Clinton officially launched her campaign on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Christie says he won’t make a decision until late spring or early summer. 

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That’s why Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who advised George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, told msnbc that the timing of Christie’s trip is “very important.” “It’s still early, but it’s pretty late in the early stages. You’ve got to get going.” While Christie has been to the Granite State many times in the past year, many of those trips were under the umbrella of him stumping for other candidates during the midterm election cycle as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Christie, Rath said, must prove he’s serious about running, adding, “Can he relate to an audience that has been colored by the stories about him in New Jersey? … He needs to be here from now on, on a regular basis.”

“Can he relate to an audience that has been colored by the stories about him in New Jersey? … He needs to be here from now on, on a regular basis.”
Tom Rath, former New Hampshire Attorney General
Indeed, it’s been a rough year for Christie. His approval ratings as governor are at an all-time low, and debates over the budget and the state’s beleaguered pension system rage in New Jersey. Nationally, it’s been rocky too, controversial remarks about vaccinations, a New York Times report detailing the governor’s questionable luxury trips and as headlines about the scandal known as “Bridgegate” – which has rocked his administration – continuing to drip out, including that indictments may be on the way. On top of that, Christie and Paul were recently the only two potential GOP candidates not invited to the influential National Rifle Association’s annual convention, which took place over the weekend in Nashville, Tennessee.

But the socially moderate, fiscally conservative state of New Hampshire could provide a perfect backdrop for Christie to make a comeback. His bold and brash style – a liability in some places—is a plus in the fiercely independent state, whose motto is “Live free or die.”

RELATED: Report: Bridgegate indictments could come as early as next week

He’ll be able to display his chops at his town halls – one in Londonderry and the other in Exeter. It’s a format the governor does well in; he has held over 130 such events in New Jersey as governor. During a trip to New Hampshire back in February, Christie indicated he’d be back a lot more to give residents the opportunity “to ask me questions and challenge me.”

Kerry Marsh, a chairwoman of the Concord City Republican Committee, said the town hall format goes over well with New Hampshirites who “like to ask real questions, have real questions and not have politicians looking over their shoulder for the next hand to shake.” She noted, however, that several prominent GOPers will be in the state the same week as Christie, creating a buzz. “He needs to create his own buzz,” said Marsh. 

During his Tuesday speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Christie is expected to lay out a proposal to address the country’s long-term entitlement crisis. “Governor Christie will discuss the need to bring systemic reform to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Disability Insurance in order to create fairness and ensure these programs support those who need them most,” Christie’s political action committee, Leadership Matters for America, said. 

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It’s a message Christie has been focusing on at his town halls in wanting to fix the state’s health benefits plans and public worker pension system. Last week, the governor took to Twitter to declare he’s no “vanilla” politician in trying to hammer home the message that he’ll always tell it like it is, even if the truth hurts. He added, “What you see is what you get” and “Bc like my mom always said: always be yourself, that way you don’t have to try to remember who u pretend to be yday.” His New Hampshire town halls are being framed by his team as a “tell it like it is” tour.

Republican strategist Dan Hazelwood said Christie is “trying to reclaim his brand, which has been horribly tarnished over the past year,” as he considers running for the nation’s highest office, adding, “He’s trying to say ‘don’t forget about me’ as the race for the presidency has moved off in a different direction and everyone has forgot about Chris Christie.”

Chris Christie and New Hampshire

Chris Christie, between a rock and a Granite State