LIVINGSTON, New Jersey – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie formally jumped into the crowded Republican presidential field here on Tuesday, stressing his leadership of a blue state and blaming both parties for the gridlock in Washington.
“We need a government … that remembers you went there to work for us, not the other way around,” Christie told a crowd of about 700 people at a packed gymnasium at Livingston High School, his alma mater where he served as class president and catcher on the baseball team.
Christie’s message was aimed at a general election audience, not the highly partisan Republicans who populate early state contests. He focused on his stewardship of New Jersey, noting its density, ethnically diverse population, and Democrat-controlled state legislature. “This country needs to work together again, not against each other,” said Christie, who walked on a stage as Bon Jovi’s “We Weren’t Born to Follow” blared on the loudspeaker. The governor added that he would welcome good ideas from Democrats and Republicans alike.
And in fitting with his reputation for being an abrasive and blunt talker, Christie added, “I am not running for president as a surrogate for being prom king.”
The 52-year-old governor hammered home his slogan “telling it like it is" during his 20-minute speech, declaring to supporters, “I mean what I say, and I say what I mean.” He also took a hit at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. “President Obama lives in his own world, not in our world … better not turn it over to his second mate, Hillary Clinton,” said Christie.
Christie faces a steep climb from his current underdog status in the sprawling GOP field, where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker lead in many early surveys. Christie is polling terribly in his home state, and the scandal known as Bridgegate, which tainted his administration with the stench of scandal, isn’t going away.
Still, several people involved in the campaign believe a path to victory still exists. Ray Washburne, Christie’s finance chief, told msnbc it largely rests on three main tenets — holding town hall meetings (a format he does quite well in), eventually showing off his debate chops on the national stage, and putting forth concrete policy proposals.
“He’s laid pretty low in the last few months to get through the budget season. Now that he’s finished with that, he can really get out on the road and really let people hear him and see him,” said Washburne.
Christie’s campaign launch in Livingston was fitting. Although Christie was born in Newark, New Jersey, the Republican has long called Livingston home. Christie’s family moved to the Essex County township, where the city is located, when he was a young boy, shortly after the 1967 Newark riots that left 26 people dead. He lived there, in a modest, three-bedroom, ranch-style home, until receiving his diploma in 1980 from Livingston High School — where he was described by several of his classmates as popular and as an all-star athlete. Plus, he has gone back to Livingston several times: To hold one of his famous town halls, to attend at least two high school reunions, and to speak at the township’s bicentennial celebration.
“Why here? Because everything started here for me,” Christie said on Tuesday in the high school gym, where just outside in the hallway is a picture of him and his baseball team from his high school days. “I had to come home. Livingston is home for me.”
In other ways, the choice to make his big announcement in Livingston is puzzling. Christie’s popularity in the Garden State is at an all-time low, with a poll released earlier this week by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Public Mind showing just 30% of people in New Jersey approve of the job the governor’s doing, with the majority — 55% — disapproving. Some candidates, like former New York Gov. George Pataki, have chosen to make their 2016 intentions known outside their home states — in Pataki’s case, New Hampshire.
Christie may be polling terribly in his home state, but you wouldn’t know it from the crowd at the governor’s announcement speech, which was filled with his family, childhood friends and longtime supporters.
“It’s a big celebration,” said Alan Kenwood, 69, of Mendham, New Jersey. The emergency medicine physician acknowledged that Christie faces a “long road ahead” with the crowded field, but he said “I like that he is very straightforward and willing to take heat for telling what he sees is the truth.”
Outside the school, however, was a different story. Hundreds of protesters — organized by the Essex County Education Association — showed up to rally against Christie’s announcement. Many held signs with words like “You’re not born to run for prez” and “Chris Christie: Bad for N.J., bad for U.S.A”
Jim Huebner, a 55-year-old protester from Howell, New Jersey, said he showed up to “demonstrate to the rest of the country what a sham Gov. Christie is and that if he’s elected president, it will be the biggest mistake America will ever make.” The self-described independent, who teaches physics at Howell High School, said it was an “absolute insult” that the governor — who has sparred with teacher unions over pensions during his time in office — decided to make his announcement at a public school. “All he has done is trample on teachers and ridicule them,” Huebner argued.
Although Christie made his big announcement in his home state, he won’t be here for long. After his remarks in Livingston, the governor will head to Sandown, New Hampshire, to hold a town hall meeting in the early evening. He’ll stick around in the first-in-the-nation primary state through July 4, holding an additional 10 events, including two additional town halls, retail meet and greets and an appearance in a Fourth of July parade. New Hampshire is quickly 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.
Towards the end of his speech, with his wife Mary Pat and children standing nearby, Christie promised to run a campaign “without spin” and one that is “not what is popular but what is right.” In typical Christie fashion, he added, “You're going to get what I think, whether you like it or not, and whether it makes you cringe every once in a while or not."