New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie listens to a question from the audience at the 3rd Annual Lincoln-Reagan Dinner at The Grappone Center, Feb. 16, 2015, in Concord, N.H.
Photo by Mary Schwalm/AP

Chris Christie’s path to 2016 may hinge on this state

New Hampshire better get ready to see a whole lot more of another state’s governor.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, made his first visit of the year to the critical early voting state this week, and several business leaders who met with him told msnbc that Christie relayed the message that he’d be coming back a whole lot more. He’ll also hold a series of town hall meetings this year in the Granite State, a format with which Christie is very familiar – he’s held more than 125 such events in New Jersey. 

“The more I come back, the less speech you’re gonna get and the more time you’re going to get to ask me questions and challenge me,” Christie said at the Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner hosted by Republicans Monday in Concord.

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New Hampshire is emerging as a do-or-die state for Christie, a northeastern moderate who experts say would have trouble in other critical early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina – where voters tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a fellow moderate with a big head of steam heading into the still-nascent 2016 race, is expected to have a big home-state advantage in the early and political powerhouse state of Florida if he does jump into the race. That leaves Christie looking at New Hampshire as his best hope for early momentum.

Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, put it more bluntly: For Christie, New Hampshire is “a must win, period.” If Christie loses the state, his White House prospects would be all but dead, he said.

Socially moderate, fiscally conservative New Hampshire is a state almost tailor made for Christie. Even his bold, brash style – a liability in some places – is a plus in fiercely independent New Hampshire, whose state motto is “Live free or die.”

Of course, you can’t count on New Hampshire or any other single state to swing the race for you. John McCain – who concentrated his limited resources in New Hampshire in 2000 – handily beat George W. Bush but was unable to win the party’s nomination. Placing all your eggs in one basket isn’t a good idea either, as Rudy Giuliani found out in 2008 when he decided to largely abandon New Hampshire and concentrate on the Florida primary. Shortly after his crushing defeat, he dropped out.

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Still, New Hampshire seems promising for Christie.

“He’s from the northeast, and he’s already been coming here as chairman of the Republican Governors Association,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who advised George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “He had a very, very good trip this week but he needs to be here on a regular basis. That’s sometimes hard for governors and he needs to demonstrate to New Hampshire voters that he has not just the capacity but the personality and the ability to govern.”

According to a new NBC News/Marist survey that asked New Hampshire Republicans whom they would vote for if the primary were held today, 18% said they’d vote for Bush. Christie came in fourth with 13%, with former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in second with 15%, and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in third with 14%. The good news for Christie, however, is that the poll’s margin of error was 5 percentage points, meaning he’s in a statistical dead heat.

Christie was well received this week during his visit to the Granite State, where he also held a private roundtable with New Hampshire business leaders in Bedford.

“The biggest thing that spoke to me was his genuine approach. He didn’t sound like he was talking with prepared statements,” said Tom Boucher, the owner and CEO of Great New Hampshire Restaurants, who estimated that there were about 18 business leaders in the room. Boucher recounted how he asked Christie about immigration, an important aspect of his industry because of a potential workforce shortage on the horizon. “He said immigration laws are broken right now. They don’t work and it’s clear we have a problem. We have to find a way to get immigrant workers to get here legally so they can fill the positions but also keep the border secure,” Boucher recounted Christie as saying.

Kerry Marsh, chair of the Concord City Republican Committee, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by Christie’s remarks at the Lincoln-Reagan Day dinner, especially because the governor took questions off-the-cuff, which doesn’t always happen when potential candidates visit. “It’s New Hampshire. We expect you to be in our living rooms,” said Marsh.

RELATED: Skepticism grows over Christie’s 2016 chances

The successful visit comes after a rough few weeks for Christie. His recent trip to England was overshadowed by his controversial remarks about vaccinations, a New York Times report detailed the governor’s questionable luxury trips, and polls showed his popularity taking a hit back home in New Jersey.

Scala said if Christie runs in 2016, he would face significant challenges in New Hampshire. A recent Saint Anselm College/Bloomberg New Hampshire poll showed 29% of likely GOP voters had an unfavorable view of Christie. “That’s been true for several quarters now. Whether that dates back to Christie’s embrace of Obama in 2012, or if it’s the fact that he’s seen as a Republican governor of a blue state who is going to be moderate on his positions, or Bridgegate … That’s a tough place to start from. He’s a bit overexposed at this point,” he said.

And it’s not like other would-be candidates are sitting idly by. Walker has hired longtime New Hampshire strategist Andy Leach, and Bush has tapped Rich Killion as his New Hampshire strategist. Bush plans on making his first visit to the state on March 13 and 14, while Walker will also be in Concord on March 14 for the New Hampshire Republican State Committee’s “2016 Kickoff Grassroots Training.” Christie’s political action committee recently hired Matt Mowers, former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee. Mowers declined to comment for this story.

Several New Hampshirites who said they were impressed with Christie’s visit said they still aren’t 100% sold on Christie.

“It’s way too early to say,” said Kathy Rago, an accountant and chair of the Merrimack County Republican Committee, who said she was impressed by Christie’s “straight-shooter” attitude. Similarly, Boucher said Christie is one of three candidates he likes. “I haven’t had time to vet the others yet. Id like the opportunity to hear more before I make up my mind.”

Chris Christie and New Hampshire

Chris Christie's path to 2016 may hinge on this state