“Terrorism is not theoretical to me,” Christie said. “It’s not theoretical, it’s real. I see it in the eyes of people in my state every day.”
It is an argument — anchored by his experience as U.S. Attorney for New Jersey after 9/11 — that resonates with Republican primary voters who have a deep-seated feeling that President Obama does not understand the terrorism threat. And it is one that he laid out to voters in New Hampshire over the weekend, bringing some of them to tears.
But Christie’s address, though it was billed as one focused on foreign policy, drifted to far-flung topics: marijuana legalization, immigration, trade. And it offered few specifics on how he would actually combat the threat posed by the Islamic State and other terror groups.
Asked whether he would put troops on the ground, Christie didn’t answer the question. He reiterated a call for France to invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which calls for a collective defense against an attack on one ally.
As Christie spoke, France’s ambassador to the United States explained why his country isn’t considering it.
“NATO is not relevant for the coordination between law enforcement agencies and borders control,” Gérard Araud tweeted. And, Araud added, it would serve as “a provocation for Russia.”
But ultimately, specifics aren’t the crux of Christie’s argument for his candidacy vis-à-vis terrorism. Rather, it is that he understands the need and is determined to protect the homeland.
Christie acknowledged, perhaps unwittingly, that he does not actually have much foreign policy experience ("That’s what passes for foreign policy when you’re U.S. Attorney in New Jersey: Dealing with the Southern District of New York.").
If anything, his strength is of tone, not substance.
“Our leaders can’t assure our safety, and they want us to follow them into the abyss,” Christie said, calling Obama’s foreign policy, at best, inconsistent and ineffective.
“Despite everything we’ve seen in the last 12 or 13 days, the president and this administration continue to minimize the threat of ISIS,” Christie said, referring to the Islamic State by one of its other names.
Middle East expert and former adviser to President Bush, Elliott Abrams, noted that Christie's speech contained no mistakes that might be the downfall of other governors running for president.
"I thought it came across well. He handled the questions well. There was no question that left him flat-footed, that he seemed unable to answer," noted Abrams, who has briefed Christie and other presidential candidates in this race.
At this early stage in the presidential primary, that may be enough for voters.
Christie’s pitch is both personal and political — and it hasn’t actually changed dramatically in recent weeks. Yet when he recites these stories now — about being named “U.S. Attorney on September 10th, 2001," about waiting and worrying about his wife Mary Pat who was at work in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 — it has taken on new resonance.
Now, on the campaign trail, Christie lingers when he talks about his personal fear on that day, the loss of his friends, and his efforts to stop terror attacks before they could be committed.
“The next seven years I spent as a prosecutor prosecuting planned acts of terror in my state,” Christie said. “Because we took the step that we needed to … we prevented future attacks from happening, future deaths from occurring, future families from suffering the loss and the pain that I see right in my hometown.”
If this message is to break through with voters, there has never been a better time for Christie.
The recent rehabilitation of his image in the minds of voters has been nothing short of dramatic. Of all the candidates in a recent Gallup poll, Christie has made the most dramatic gains in his favorability numbers.
Most of his time has been spent in New Hampshire, where this weekend he logged his 34th and 35th town halls, which featured burgeoning crowds. And there, this message has been particularly attractive to fearful voters.
“I think foreign policy is not Christie’s strong suit, fighting terrorism is,” said Ari Fleischer, a former adviser to President George W. Bush.
“He has a good case to make as a former prosecutor that knows what it takes to fight and deter terror," Fleischer added. “And his personality and aura are 'tough guy.' Post-Paris, especially the Republican electorate is in the mood for a tough guy.”
None of this has been reflected in Christie’s poll numbers thus far. Following the Paris attacks, Christie spent a week fundraising and taking advantage of so-called “earned media,” but did not return to swing states until a week after.
Polling data shows that he is still struggling to escape the low single digits — even in New Hampshire, where his campaign has all but bet the farm.
Still, Christie made it clear that post the Paris attacks, a new paradigm has emerged that favors him.
“I had this argument with Sen. [Rand] Paul on the stage in August,” Christie said, noting that he supports metadata collection programs by intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency, while Paul has spearheaded legislation opposing it. "Folks maybe understood the argument less."
"Eleven days after Paris it's significantly more acute," he added.
This post has been updated.