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Chris Christie's heckler dilemma

Is the embattled governor better off brushing hecklers off and letting security handle them? Or should he regain his former aggressiveness and lay into them?
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting, on March 13, 2014, at the YMCA of Burlington County, in Mount Laurel, N.J.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting, on March 13, 2014, at the YMCA of Burlington County, in Mount Laurel, N.J.

Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was tested by six protesters at his town hall meeting on Thursday — the first time he's met such irate residents face-to-face since a traffic jam scandal ensnared his administration. 

As they interrupted the Republican on a slew of issues --including so-called "Bridgegate" and allegations that his office may have misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds – Christie used a mix of strategies. He ignored the majority of hecklers by turning his back as they were escorted out by police. Only once did he snap, turning to the first heckler and telling him to “either sit down and keep quiet or get out. We’re done with you,” which was met with loud applause.

He also tried to shame the hecklers, several of whom later identified themselves as Rowan University students. Christie told the  approximately 500-person crowd in Mount Laurel, N.J.: “They don’t want an answer from me. What they want is attention.”

The governor largely kept his cool, certainly giving a more toned-down response than he might have two years ago, when his popularity was soaring and Christie called a law student an “idiot” and told him to “shut up” at a town hall. 

But things are different today. Christie’s troubles aren't going away anytime soon, and the governor potentially faces more hecklers in his town hall meetings to come. How should he handle them? Is the bruised and battered governor better off brushing hecklers off and letting security handle them? Or should he regain his former aggressiveness and lay into them?

Republican political and image consultant Brian Kirwin said Christie may have made a mistake in mostly ignoring the hecklers. “No one likes a heckler or someone that’s rude. When he does [engage], he gets cheers. He’s got to remind people why they liked him in the first place” and recapture his reputation as the governor who “sticks it back to them.”

Kirwin said that while Christie’s word choice of telling the heckler  “we’re done with you” was not ideal, the governor “was at his most popular when he was populist and he was fighting.”

Maurice Bonamigo, a political and professional image consultant who works with mostly conservative clients in the U.S., went further, saying the governor needs to “clean up his act” even if he used snappy rhetoric just once.  It just reiterates the less savory aspects of Christie’s reputation: He’s a bully.  “You can get along further with honey than vinegar … That arrogant, street punk mentality turns away people,” said Bonamigo.

President Obama has used an authoritative approach on more than one occasion. Back in November, when Obama was talking about the need to get immigration reform done, one protester shouted: “Mr. President, please use your executive order to halt deportations for all 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country right now! ... You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country!”

Obama replied: “Actually I don’t. And that’s why we’re here.” The heckler was quieted.

But that route may not work for Christie. “Obama always wants to be the smartest one in the room. Christie has always wanted to be the beer buddy. What Obama does fits his image: intellectual, not emotional … That’s not Christie’s image. His is bare knuckles ‘you ready for a debate? I’m ready'" said Kirwin.

Nino Saviano, a Washington, D.C.-based political consultant, said Christie’s decision to tone it down, however, was the right one. And he should continue to ignore such protesters.

“As an elected official in an executive position, Christie's image suffered with Bridgegate because it partly showed that he was not in control of his staff … At least that it is the perception in many ways. Before, he could afford going 'off script' and rough up his hecklers in public appearances. But if he keeps doing that — or if goes back to doing that — most people will perceive him as someone who cannot be in control, not only of his staff or office, but also of himself when criticized or heckled in a town hall meeting,” Saviano said.

But his one snipe on Thursday, while it may fly in a tough-guy-friendly state like New Jersey, may not go over so well in in other areas of the country—especially if Christie, who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2016, has that chance.

“If he really wants to go national, these things don’t resonate outside certain pockets,” said political imagery consultant and body language expert Joe Navarro. “He has to appeal to the midwest, to the south and to the west. What helps in New Jersey, this whole bada bing thing, it just doesn’t work.”

A new poll, however, shows Christie’s popularity in Iowa – which holds the important first-in-nation caucuses, has taken a hit since the scandal erupted. According to Quinnipiac, Democrat Hillary Clinton leads Christie 48% to 35% in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup. Three months ago, Christie was leading 45% to 40%. 

Christie has been met with largely friendly audiences in his town halls, which have been held in GOP-favorable municipalities. He’s scheduled to hold another one – the governor’s 114th Q&A since being elected – in  South River next week.

The governor has denied any prior knowledge of the September lane closure plan on the George Washington Bridge and has since fired a top aide and cut ties with a longtime political adviser who were aware of the plan.