LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- At a town hall meeting here in this crucial, early voting state, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was confronted about an issue that has haunted him in the past: vaccinations.
After coming under fierce criticism earlier this year for saying parents should have a “measure of choice” in whether their children are vaccinated, the potential Republican presidential candidate said he doesn't support voluntary inoculations.
“No, you can’t count on me for that,” Christie said on Wednesday to applause from a standing-room only crowd of about 300 people at the Lion’s Club, where a giant sign reading “tell it like it is” hung behind him.
Laura Condon, a Bedford resident and volunteer with the National Vaccine Information Center (a group dedicated to preventing vaccine injuries and deaths), had asked the governor if he would back conscientious exemptions for those living in the Granite State. Besides saying no, the governor told Condon, “Vaccinations have done enormous good in this country,” and "you're always going to have concerns about your child, but we also have to be concerned about public health.”
Back in February, the governor’s trip to London was overshadowed when he was asked about vaccinations amid a measles outbreak in the U.S. Then, Christie said that while his children have been vaccinated, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”
Shortly afterward, still in England, Christie seemed to walk back those remarks. “The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate," Christie's spokesman said in a statement.
Christie’s initial remarks kicked off a national debate about vaccinations and the government’s role among potential 2016 candidates.
Overall, the governor was met with a friendly crowd Wednesday at this Rockingham County town and was asked about a slew of issues – from foreign policy to domestic issues, including his plan on entitlement reforms. Christie was even asked for his opinion on billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who is also flirting with a presidential bid. Christie called Trump a “friend” and “quintessential American.”
When asked about Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba, Christie said it is a “national disgrace that the president is engaged of that kind of conduct. He should be ashamed of himself.” Christie also was asked about the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program and suggested the president should have the “guts to walk away from a bad deal.”
On domestic policy, Christie also defended the plan he pitched on Tuesday to increase the retirement age to 69 and to lower Social Security benefits for retired seniors who make more than $80,000 a year in non-Social Security income and eliminating it entirely for those making $200,000 or more a year.
At one point, Christie made a dig at his potential Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who officially threw her hat into the 2016 ring on Sunday. The governor was asked about big money influence in politics. Christie called for more transparency, but pointed to Clinton’s projected $2.5 billion campaign. “But she wants to get corrupting money out of politics. It’s classic politician speak.”
Christie, who is on a nine-stop tour in the state this week, will hold another town hall in Exeter on Friday after speaking in Nashua at the “First in the Nation” summit, alongside many of his potential GOP competitors.
New Hampshire is quickly emerging as a do-or-die state for the governor, who is facing lackluster poll numbers and has seen his status as a front-tier candidate all but dissipate. Many say the moderate Republican would face difficulty in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, where many tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives.
Paul Clark, an 81-year-old from Nashua, New Hampshire, said he was open to the governor’s candidacy. “He can respond to any questions – hostile or favorable. And he brings out emotion. That’s rare in a politician." Clark had asked the governor when he would run for president. Christie reiterated past responses – sometime in late spring or early summer.
Beverly Sewall, a 68-year-old New Market, New Hampshire, resident said that she liked that Christie was “taking the time to talk to everyone.” But the self-identified Republican said she was concerned about the governor’s plans to address Social Security – giving the example of a 20-year-old man not making much money at the start of his career and paying into the system, only to later not be able to benefit from it if he makes more money. “He would be punished for being successful. That doesn’t seem fair,” said Sewall.
Christie will head back to New Jersey later in the day to attend the opening of a Bass Pro Shop in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He’ll also host another town hall in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, on Thursday before returning to the Granite State on Friday.