MANCHESTER, N.H. — This is not the presidential campaign Chris Christie imagined.
“After I got reelected in 2013, my life was completely different then,” the New Jersey governor said between campaign stops here late last week. “Lots of things have happened, both to me and the race. It’s completely different.”
Christie doesn’t need to enumerate what hit him after his reelection victory: revelations about the man-made traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge that brought scandal to his administration; the sudden and aggressive entry of Jeb Bush, who stole some of the establishment donors Christie was counting on; the surprise rise of Donald Trump, the one candidate with a personality bigger than Christie’s.
After that easy gubernatorial reelection two years ago, Christie was the near-consensus choice of many in the Republican establishment for the 2016 presidential nomination, a politician who could teach the GOP how to win in blue states. Time magazine featured him on its cover with the not-so-subtle headline: “The Elephant in the Room.” Among the other cover headlines were “What the Party Needs” and “How Chris Christie Can Win Over the GOP.”
Today, the politician who gained a national reputation by shouting down constituents at town-hall meetings in his home state struggles to be heard in a field of 15 candidates. It is a contest in which a trio of non-politicians have pushed the politicians down into single digits in the polls and, in Christie’s case, to the outside flank of the debate stages.
That none of those things was anticipated is ironically the lifeline to which Christie now clings. He believes that, if things changed before, they will change again. “It’s a good lesson,” he said. “That’s why nothing anybody’s saying about the race right now matters either.”
Christie admits that the unexpected shape of the Republican race has forced him to adjust. The normally impatient politician said he is trying to learn to take a longer view: “I’ve had to continue to tell myself that patience is a virtue.”
The other adjustment is to ratchet up his anger toward Washington to match what seems to be the mood of the GOP electorate. Christie long has attacked President Obama as a weak leader. Now he’s scathingly dismissive of all of official Washington, including those in his own party.
He’s likened the spectacle and tumult surrounding the House speaker’s race to “Game of Thrones.”
“Only people in Washington, D.C., think anybody cares about this,” he told a group of reporters after a town hall at a factory in Manchester on Thursday. “Who’s going to get the title and who’s going to sit in the special big chair and who’s going to get the great table at the restaurant in Washington. . . . What the American people want is a Congress that actually does something.”
Christie believes long exposure to the voters will eventually pay him dividends. New Hampshire is his principal target, although he said in the interview that he plans to compete hard in Iowa.
On Friday morning, he held his 29th town-hall meeting in New Hampshire. The town halls are among the best shows in New Hampshire this fall, and Christie holds nothing back. He is typically blunt, humorous and often windy.
At a pancake restaurant in Henniker, he pushed back hard against a question about Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, said he’s the only candidate pushing for genuine entitlement reform, claimed his experience in New Jersey fighting against and working with Democrats have given him the tools to make Washington work and, drawing a contrast with some hard-liners in his party, said “compromise is not capitulation.”
Christie’s answers are long, discursive and sometimes repetitive. The town-hall meetings can last up to two hours. But they play to good reviews.
Richard Brothers was at Christie’s town hall in Belmont on Thursday night. “I was a big McCain guy back in 1999 and then in 2007,” he said. “Chris Christie’s the only person I’ve seen who does a town hall as well as McCain did a town hall. . . . This is how the New Hampshire primary gets won.”
Christie has no explanation other than voter anger for the rise of the outsiders: Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
He called Trump “a skilled communicator and celebrity” but added: “I don’t think his skills are best suited for the presidency.”
Carson is a mystery to Christie. Asked to explain Carson’s success, he said, “I think he’s a very nice man, but beyond that I don’t have a theory at all.
He acknowledged that Fiorina has been effective in the debates, but he said: “I don’t think her record is anything to throw a party over. The shareholders at Hewlett-Packard certainly don’t think it is.”
He doubts that any of the three will be the nominee. “The state of the race now will not be the state of the race come February 1,” he said. “Those who really know what they’re really doing in government and those who know where they want to take the country specifically will rise to the top.”
Christie said he’s long believed that his real competition is with Bush and with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I think Jeb for obvious reasons, because of his name and his money,” he explained. “And I think Marco because I think he’s very talented. He’s a very talented communicator and politician.”
But he sees Bush as a candidate who has more than once had to say, “What I really meant was,” or “No, no, I misspoke.” He said Bush isn’t the only candidate who’s done that, but “he’s certainly had the most.” He added, “Talent is what will matter, more than money, more than a name.”
He has high personal regard for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. “He’s a good friend, and I like him a great deal,” he said. “I think in the long run, amongst the governors, I’ll end up being the choice. But it’s nothing against John.”
Looking at the most conservative side of the GOP field, Christie praised two candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. “I think Ted Cruz is a strong candidate,” he said. “He’s bright and talented. And I think Mike Huckabee is talented and shouldn’t be underestimated.”
I asked Christie where he thought he would be were it not for his administration’s scandal over the George Washington Bridge — though he has never been implicated directly into what happened.
“I have no idea, but it certainly didn’t help,” he said. “I think I’d be better off than I am now, but I don’t know.”
But he insists the damage was not irreparable.
“I’m an absolutely credible candidate for president of the United States who has significant amounts of support around the country from people in my country,” he said. Christie said that was hardly conventional wisdom in early 2014.
Christie said nothing that’s happened so far will determine the outcome of the nomination contest. It is something he has to believe to keep slogging from town hall to town hall and as he makes his pitch for money. He would not reveal how much he raised in the last quarter but said he will have the resources to keep going.
Whether Christie fits the Republican Party today is an open question. Whether he can come back from the blows he’s absorbed is another. So, too, is whether he can persuade GOP voters that he is their best candidate to win a general election.
He doesn’t worry about all that, or what the polls show now. If he hasn’t moved up in January, he said, he will start to get nervous. For now, his undiminished self-confidence keeps him going. “I know when I stand on the stage looking at the others that no one has been more tested than I am,” he said. “So when it’s hotter, I’ll be even better.”