For a couple of months we have noted that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is performing better than his poll numbers reflected. He had two good debate performances. He has put out meaty plans on national security, entitlement reform, and tax reform. In TV interviews he has been relaxed and up-to-speed on foreign policy, as he was again on Sunday on ABC.
On “This Week,” he urged implementation in Syria of a no-fly zone. (“America’s got to re-establish its presence in that area. We should be the ones leading the fight on ISIS. And by the way, we know Putin’s not fighting ISIS. Putin’s there to prop up Assad. . . . And I’ll tell you this, there’s now 300,000 nearly dead in Syria because of Assad and now Putin is going in and teaming with the Iranians to prop up Assad. Only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could mess up this foreign policy that badly. And anybody who agrees with allowing the Russians into the Middle East is just painfully naive.”) He also made a credible case for tax reform. (“I’ve vetoed more tax increases than any governor in American history”) and for his record in dealing with Democrats (“I’m the only guy with a Democratic legislature that’s brought people together.”).
Finally in the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist New Hampshire poll Christie got a bump, moving up to 7 percent. That has been where he has spent the lion’s share of his time, and where his best chance for an early primary win rests. He has also been helped by a drop in interest in a main rival for moderate voters, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has gone from double digits to 6 percent.
But Christie will need several things to fall his way to jump into real contention.
First, he will need to make the next debate — currently he is barely above CNBC’s threshold of a 2.5 percent average in recent national polls — and deliver another top-flight performance, taking it to his most likely rivals for moderate and independent voters while continuing to shoot down Trump’s inane policy remarks.
Second, it is not clear how much money he has but soon enough we will know if he has enough in the till to go up on the air in New Hampshire. It’s not essential, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) showed by winning the state one townhall at a time, but it will be hard to keep pace with those who have ample funds and a good ground organization.
Third, he’s got to figure out a way to deal with Carly Fiorina. It’s a delicate balance between trying to knock her down to size and appearing overbearing toward the only woman in the field. Rather than snipe at her for talking about her business background (what else can she do when explaining her readiness?) he would do well to start pressuring her to lay out concrete proposals as he has. It is one thing to say “there are lots of good ideas out there,” as she often does; it’s quite another to select specific ones and make the case for your agenda to voters.
Fourth, he will need to live down the notorious scene of him hugging the president on the beach just before the 2012 election. In fact, he’s got a good case to make that he’s been fighting the Obama-like liberal agenda in a blue state, and has plenty to show for it.
Make no mistake: Christie has an uphill climb. There are many candidates ahead of him in the polls, many with more money and some without the hostility coming from the base. Healing the divide between the grass roots and the establishment will not be easy for someone perceived as too moderate by the base. That said, he has something other candidates lack: A pairing of a strong executive record in public office with a charismatic personality. Jeb Bush has the former, but not the latter. Fiorina and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have the rhetorical skill but not his track record of leading a state or dealing with a serious public crisis (e.g. Ebola, hurricane Sandy). If nothing else Christie will make the race more interesting and pose a challenge for several competitors who need to win or come close in New Hampshire.