MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- Chris Christie isn't officially in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. But already, he thinks he stands out from the rest of the pack.
The New Jersey governor told msnbc after a meet-and-greet at a pizza parlor in this early and crucial voting state that what sets him apart from potential competitors is that he governs in a very difficult state that “looks more like Washington, D.C. than anybody else has governed in.”
“I deal with a difficult Democratic legislature -- every day for the last five-and-a-half years -- and have worked with them to forge compromise and get things done,” said Christie, who was accompanied by his wife Mary Pat. Christie said experience with a Democrat-controlled legislature makes him more prepared for the Oval Office more than “somebody who has governed in a single party state.”
Christie on Tuesday began a nine-stop tour of the Granite State -- right on the heels of two other candidates entering the 2016 fray. On Monday evening, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announced his campaign for the nation’s highest office in Miami. On Sunday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same in a video posted on social media.
Christie offered mildly collegial comments regarding Clinton's candidacy. “Good for her. Anybody who wants to run for president should have the chance to do it. We’ll see how she does," he told msnbc.
Christie – who has seen his status as a first-tier candidate all but evaporate while he suffers low approval ratings and fallout from the Bridgegate scandal – said he would not make a final decision about 2016 until late spring or summer, even as GOP Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky have also officially jumped into the race.
Earlier in the day, the governor pitched himself as a truth-teller when he delivered a speech on entitlement reform at St. Anselm College. Christie pitched a slew of proposals – including lowering 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 a year. He also called on raising the retirement age to 69 – stressing the plan would not affect current beneficiaries.
"I will not pander. I will not flip-flop. I am not afraid to tell you the truth as I see it, whether you like it or not," he said.
Christie dismissed criticism that his plan is really a tax on the wealthy, who will pay into the system but not benefit from it. “I frankly think that my friend Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t need to collect social security,” he said of the Facebook founder. Wealthy philanthropist “Warren Buffett doesn’t need to collect Social Security and their lives will not be materially changed by it. But if the system that goes broke, seniors that are on the edge of poverty and don’t get social security, their lives will be drastically changed,” Christie added.
The message played well with several students at St. Anselm. Tim Brogan, a 20-year-old junior studying international relations, said he appreciated Christie’s blunt message “It was not a rah-rah, happy times speech. He’s opening himself up for criticism, but you can’t sweep controversial topics under the rug.” Brogan, who identified himself as an independent, said he would consider voting for Christie if he ran for president but it’s still too early to decide.
The governor is clearly trying to reassert himself in New Hampshire, which is emerging as a do-or-die state for him. Many say Christie—a Northeastern moderate – would face difficulties in other critical voting states like Iowa and South Carolina where voters tend to cast their ballots for strict social conservatives.
Already there’s a pall over Christie’s trip. According to The New York Times, federal indictments could come down this week on Christie’s allies and former staffers, stemming from accusations that they were involved in shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly for political retribution, in 2013. Christie, who has denied any prior knowledge of the plot, said the ongoing federal probe would have no bearing on his decision to seek the nation’s highest office.
“Quite frankly, I gave an hour and fifteen minute long press conference 15 months ago and answered every question. And in those last 15 months, there has not been one fact that’s been revealed by an internal investigation by a very partisan legislative investigation or the leaks from this federal investigation that has contradicted one thing that I’ve said.”
Later Tuesday evening, Christie is set to hold another meet and greet at a tavern in New Market – before attending a roundtable hosted by activist and businesswoman Renee Plummer in Portsmouth.
The rest of the week centers around a format Christie is very familiar with: town halls. After holding more than 130 such events in New Jersey, he’ll hold one in Londonderry on Wednesday and another in Exeter on Friday. He’ll also rub elbows with many of his potential Republican competitors at the First in The Nation summit in Nashua, also on Friday.