BEDFORD, New Hampshire -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still being dogged by the scandal known as "Bridgegate," but that’s not stopping the Republican from testing his 2016 appeal in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire.
After highlighting his pro-life credentials to evangelicals early Friday at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 2014 Road to Majority Policy Conference in Washington D.C., Christie traveled to the Granite State, which is filled with moderate and independent voters who often fancy themselves presidential kingmakers eager to buck the conventional wisdom, to help raise cash for gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein.
Those are two very different trips in one day for Christie. Appealing to social conservatives in D.C. and fiercely independent Republicans in New Hampshire are two critical pieces of a winning 2016 strategy, and the trips are stoking buzz that Christie is trying to unite two often-warring GOP factions to help him score the nomination. And while Christie has long been on shaky ground with social conservatives, New Hampshire has long been seen as fertile territory for this relatively moderate northeastern governor -- at least it was until accusations that Christie’s administration abused its power starting piling up early this year.
And what about now? The reactions to Christie from his meet-and-greet with Havenstein at T-Bones’ Great American Eatery in the small town of Bedford on Friday afternoon ranged from sheer enthusiasm, to skepticism, to indifference. But talk of 2016 was rampant.
Christie walked up to 53-year-old Patrick McCoy of Nashua, who was eating a steak sandwich, to say "hello." McCoy told the politician, “The last governor I shook hands with became president,” recounting when he met Ronald Reagan in junior high. The security officer said he’d be thrilled if Christie ran for president. “I like him. He tells us how it is," he said.
"I like [Christie]. He tells us how it is."'
Similarly, Marcella Dube, a 47-year-old sales manager from Amherst who was accompanied with her four children and husband, gave Christie the thumbs up for 2016. “I think he’s a solid candidate,” said Dube, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012. As for the lane closures, she said, “I don’t think it matters. It’s not enough to distract me.”
T-Bones, where waitresses brag about the restaurant's 25-ounce steak and a menu that’s “gluten intolerant-friendly,” has been a frequent campaign stop for potential presidential candidates. In 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stopped by the 25-year-old eatery, which seats about 220 people and sits in a strip mall with a Talbots and a dry cleaners. In 2008, Bill and Hillary Clinton showed up when the former first lady was running for president. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also made a pit stop to T-Bones that year.
Others weren’t quite so enthusiastic about Christie. Some shrugged their shoulders upon hearing he was about to visit the restaurant. One Bedford resident said she had no idea who he was.
Paula Kollmorgen, 61, of Bedford directly told Christie, “I’m undecided about you,” to which the governor responded, “If you’re decided on Walt [Havenstein], my job here is done.” Kollmorgen, who identifies as an independent fiscal conservative, said, “I still have to wait and see what all his stances are.”
Christie’s troubles -- related to revelations that some of the governor’s aides and allies were involved in a scheme to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge, seemingly in an act of political retribution -- don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon. He is under several state and federal investigations related to the scandal.
According to a new report by Esquire, four of the governor’s former aides and associates are facing “near certain” federal corruption indictments by a grand jury at the request of U.S. attorney Paul Fishman as early as next month. The article, which quotes two anonymous sources the publication says are familiar with the probe, contends those facing the likely indictments include former Port Authority officials Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, the governor’s former deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly and Christie’s former campaign manager Bill Stepien.
The piece also suggests that Samson could potentially cut a deal with the feds and flip on Christie, but the article doesn’t specifically say what the governor may be accused of. One source told the magazine that “Fishman is really focused on Christie” and that “ultimately, he believes he’ll get to the governor.”
Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot. When asked what he thought about the Esquire report, he told reporters outside of T-Bones, “Nothing. I don’t respond to every crazy rumor that’s out there.”
Ever since the Christie-ordered internal review cleared the governor of any wrongdoing in March, he’s been more outspoken about his 2016 prospects. (Democrats have dismissed the report, which has cost New Jersey taxpayers millions of dollars, as a “whitewash.”)
At a Utah summit organized by failed 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney last week, Christie declared that the bridge scandal was “over.” Last Friday, the Garden State governor appeared on “Late Night” with Jimmy Fallon -- his first foray into late night comedy since “Bridgegate” -- where he danced on stage and answered “you bet” when asked if he could beat Hillary Clinton -- an early frontrunner among 2016 Democratic presidential contenders -- in a hypothetical race.
On Friday, when asked by reporters if 2016 was part of his calculus for coming to New Hampshire -- it’s his first stop to the state since 2012 -- he said, “Absolutely not.” Christie added, “Everybody who’s looking forward to 2016 now is being foolish. If we as a party don’t lay the right groundwork by electing [Republican] governors and taking the United States Senate in 2014, we won't have the strongest foundation to run off no mater who the candidate is in 2016.” After November, Christie added, “we’ll see what happens.”
The RGA told msnbc earlier this month that Christie also plans to visit presidential heavyweight states Iowa and South Carolina in the near future.
Christie’s not faring terribly in New Hampshire among potential voters. According to Real Clear Politics’ average of polling data surrounding the state’s GOP primary, Christie is in second place with 11.5% support behind Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky’s 13%. In Iowa, Christie fares worse, coming in sixth place.
Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the conservative-leaning Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, N.H., said “Bridgegate” is not on the minds of Republican voters in the state one way or another. “Outside a handful of overly-interested people, no one in New Hampshire is paying attention to it.”
Joseph Bafumi, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College, said the lane closure plan “hurt him some, but most people here want to wait and hear what the investigation delivers. They’re not ready to condemn Christie for doing anything wrong.”
It’s worth noting that the endorsement of Havenstein is rare for Christie, who heads the Republican Governors Association (RGA). Typically, the group waits until after a gubernatorial primary to back the decided GOP nominee. Havenstein, a retired corporate executive who is seen as the favorite among the party’s establishment, is up against entrepreneur Andrew Hemingway, who has Tea Party backing. The winner of the September primary will take on Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. A survey by Republican polling group Vox Populi shows Hemingway and Havenstein tied with 12% each -- but 75% of GOP primary voters are still undecided.
Beating Hassan, who remains popular, would not be an easy feat. In a head-to-head general election match-up, Hassan would beat Havenstein, a retired corporate executive, 48% to 19%, according to a recent WMUR Granite State Poll. When Hassan is paired up against Hemingway, the Democrat would still win in a hypothetical matchup, 49% to 22%. And the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report has rated the race as “currently safe Democrat.”
Havenstein said Christie’s big visit is a sign that “momentum is building” and that he’s on his way to winning the governor’s office.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire and New Jersey state Democratic parties are trying to draw negative similarities between Christie and Havenstein, arguing they both have a history of mismanagement and failed leadership. Citing federal investigations of Christie, Koch brothers ties and a lack of job creation, New Jersey Democratic Party Chairman John Currie said in a statement, “Chris Christie's scandalous behavior has made our state the laughingstock of the country … Granite Staters should be wary of anyone celebrating the endorsement of Chris Christie.” “It’s no surprise that Walt’s first major endorsement event is with Christie -- they’re two failed peas in a pod,” said Julie McClain, communications director for the New Hampshire Democratic Party.”
As Christie was leaving T-Bones to go to a private fundraiser in Atkinson, he was asked by a reporter if New Hampshire voters like him as much as those in Iowa -- a reference to his recent interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer. The governor had told Sawyer, “I think they love me in Iowa.”
Before he stepped into his black SUV, Christie replied that New Hampshire voters loved him “even more.”