During a meet and greet at Caesario’s Pizzeria on the main drag on Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, earlier this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was treated like a rock star, taking selfies and signing autographs for adoring fans. It was probably the reception Christie imagined when he started considering a presidential run, particularly after GOP elites all but begged him to run in 2012.
After the event, Christie stepped outside, and reality set in. A group of reporters asked him pointed questions about his lackluster poll numbers and how he’s dropped to the back of the pack in the emerging Republican presidential field.
The governor, standing by his wife Mary Pat, brushed off his current standing, saying, “These are just temporary snapshots of time and nothing that concerns me much at all. I’ve been up in polls and down in polls. What matters is who you are and how you present yourself to people, and if I decide to do this, I’ll take my chances.”
Whether Christie will be the popular back-slapper inside the restaurant or the back-on-his-heels pol outside is very much an open question. And in that vein, his nine-stop trip to the crucial, early voting state was viewed as a way for the governor to hit the 2016 reset button and bring back renewed interest to his potential campaign.
He certainly wasn't quiet about it. The governor not only touched the third rail of politics, he grabbed on with both hands and refused to let go, pushing for a controversial entitlement reform plan that raises the retirement age to 69 and cut off Social Security benefits for wealthier Americans. He held two town halls, where he was asked a slew of questions from domestic and foreign policy and his views on Donald Trump to an issue that’s haunted him before: vaccinations. He criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, saying his 2016 momentum has slowed down.
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At the “First in the Nation” GOP summit, accompanied by his potential and likely GOP competitors, Christie threw red meat to conservatives, repeatedly hammering President Obama by saying, “We have a weak president who has weakened our country” and “we can no longer afford to have weakness in the Oval Office.” And he shook many, many hands as he repeatedly tried to brand him as a tell-it-like-it-is truth teller.
“You’ll never have to wonder what I’m thinking,” he said in Nashua. And, “I am not going to tack, and move, and flip-flop, and pander because I’m looking in your eyes trying to figure out ‘what is it he wants to hear?’... That’s not who I am or who I’ve ever been, or who I’m going to be. "
But did it work?
Overall, the trip seemed to go well. Sure, there was the blip when patrons at a restaurant teased Christie about the so-called Bridgegate scandal, which continues to cast a shadow over his administration. But otherwise, he was well-received and gaffe-free.
Jamie Burnett, who served as Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire political director for the 2008 election cycle, told msnbc that Christie had a good trip, but in no way was it a game changer. “The question, I think for Christie is ‘when are you coming back?’” said Burnett, who is not affiliated with any campaign this cycle. “He needs to do this almost every week if he wants to get back in this thing. If Christie goes home today and says ‘I’ll see you the second week of May, that won’t work.’”
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, echoed that sentiment. Scala praised Christie for his town halls, saying voters found Christie likable and personable. And it was clear he “relished the setting and handled questions adroitly.” Scala said “there were signs of promise. But the difficulty for him is that he’s well known and he’s not well liked by his own party in New Hampshire and it’s going to take a lot of work like the town hall meetings to overcome that.”
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Many attendees at Christie’s events during the week said that while they were impressed overall with the governor, by no means did the trip sway them one way or another should Christie throw his hat in the ring. But they definitely weren’t opposed to a President Christie.
Tim Brogan, a 20-year-old junior at St. Anselm College in Manchester said he’d consider Christie if he ran, but isn’t totally sure. The self-described independent, who came to Christie's speech about entitlement reform at his school, said he liked Christie’s blunt demeanor. “He’s opening himself up to criticism, but you can’t sweep controversial topics under the rug.”
Paul Clark, an 81-year-old from Nashua, New Hampshire, who came to Christie’s town hall in Londonderry, said he was open to his candidacy but again wasn’t 100% sold. “But I like that he can respond to any questions, hostile or favorable. And he brings out emotion. That’s rare in a politician,” said Clark.
One roadblock that could hurt Christie is the 2013 lane closure scandal known as Bridgegate, in which the governor’s former allies and staffers closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly for political retribution. According to The New York Times, indictments could be handed down any day now.
While Christie (who has denied any prior knowledge of the plot) isn’t expected to be indicted himself, if charges do come down on his former associates, it could kneecap some of the progress he made in New Hampshire this week.
Joseph Bafumi, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said Christie made “steady progress” with his trip. But indictments “could complicate thing for him.” And the ribbing Christie received from restaurant-goers in the Granite State shows “New Hampshire voters remember the scandal, and that’s something he’ll have to contend with.”
Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who advised George W. Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, noted while Christie is late to the game, compared to say, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida – who have already announced their 2016 bids, “he’s not too late. One of the things New Hampshire voters like is someone who speaks the truth and is feisty. I wouldn’t rule him out.”
Christie has said he won’t make a decision on running for president until late spring or summer.