New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering in Long Beach Township, N.J., on July 22 as part of his “No Pain No Gain” tour that is meant to prepare voters for what he warns will be agonizing fiscal choices. (Mel Evans/AP)

There was a faint ripple of applause as Chris Christie’s black SUV pulled up to the waterfront gazebo, and it was all but drowned out by a loudspeaker blaring the Beach Boys.

The turnout was modest as well, unless you counted the 200 or so grim-faced police officers and firefighters from across the state, who far outnumbered the locals.

The town hall meeting Tuesday was the New Jersey governor’s first stop on what is being billed as a summertime “No Pain No Gain” tour of shore towns. It is meant to prepare Garden State voters for what Christie warns are going to be agonizing fiscal choices, starting this fall.

“Promises were made that can’t be kept,” Christie said of the state’s public-employee pension system. “Welcome to the real world, folks.”

What happens in New Jersey over the coming months could do more to determine Christie’s chances of winning the 2016 GOP presidential nomination than anything he does on his closely watched early forays into Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

That is because the biggest prerequisite for a sitting governor to run for president is a success story in his home state. And months after being reelected in a landslide, Christie — who at his town halls used to stand in front of a banner touting the “Jersey comeback” — does not have a rosy one to tell.

New Jersey was shocked in April by an $807 million budget gap that Christie’s administration did not foresee. The governor now says he will have to miss a couple of yearly installments against the state’s unfunded pension liability — payments that were part of a law he signed in 2011 and touted as one of his greatest achievements.

Wall Street credit agencies have downgraded New Jersey’s debt five times on his watch, with only California and Illinois rated lower.

Meanwhile, the state’s job growth lags behind not just the nation but recoveries in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania as well. New Jersey’s unemployment rate in June was half a percentage point higher than the U.S. average.

In fact, just about the only good news for Christie at home these days is that the controversy over his aides’ role in causing a massive traffic jam last year at the George Washington Bridge is no longer Topic A, though investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office and the Democratic-led legislature continue.

While his advisers refuse to discuss his 2016 ambitions on the record, they acknowledge that, win or lose, the coming battle over pensions will send a strong signal about his leadership and management qualities.

“What people look at in effective leaders are people who are willing to take risks to make meaningful change,” said Christie strategist Mike DuHaime. “He will be judged, as he has as governor, as someone willing to take on tough fights.”

Choosing to ‘take the heat’

This battle, Christie said, is his own choice. And one, he added, that previous governors ducked.

“The easiest thing in the world for me to do now would be just to say: ‘The heck with it. I tried. We got a little bit. I couldn’t fix the whole problem, but I’m gone in three years,’ ” he said at the town hall. “I wouldn’t have to take the heat. I wouldn’t have people yelling at me.”

But he is also well aware that conservative activists nationally will be watching closely.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric around his story. The test is how his rhetoric matches his record,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, whose organization issues a scorecard on presidential candidates’ fiscal records. “I’ve never looked forward to us writing a paper more than Chris Christie’s white paper.”

As he prepares to mount a second battle over pensions, Christie finds himself with less leverage than he had the first time. Having been in office almost five years, he no longer has the advantage of freshness with his bracing style. Nor will it be as easy to lay the entire blame on his predecessors, as he is wont to do. And the legislature is not as pliable to his will as it once was.

“I don’t believe the Democrats in the legislature will allow themselves to be fooled again,” said veteran state Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak. “That all came tumbling down with Bridgegate. That was a gamechanger. He’s not invincible. He’s really wounded.”

Christie has yet to say how, precisely, he plans to propose to fix the state’s pension problem, which includes an unfunded liability that is about $40 billion and growing fast. In June, he again vetoed tax increases on businesses and the wealthy that were passed by the legislature. He argues that New Jersey’s high taxes are one reason it is struggling economically.

None of his other options are pretty, as he acknowledged.

“Nobody in public office — believe me, myself included — wants to come out here and say, ‘I have to pare back benefits.’ Nobody wants to do that, because that’s one way to get a lot of people really angry at you,” Christie said. “But guess what. That’s what’s going to have to happen. And if the legislature is unwilling to do that, let me tell you what’s going to happen: New Jersey will be Detroit,” which filed for bankruptcy protection last year.

‘Reforms were a failure’

Public employees, however, say they have already done what Christie is asking — three years ago, when the governor and his allies in the legislature pushed through a bill that raised the retirement age, increased their pension contributions and cut benefits. Retirees gave up cost-of-
living adjustments.

“New Jersey has once again become a model for America,” Christie said when he signed the 2011 law. It provided, he added, “an assurance to the hardworking men and women in government all across New Jersey that when the time comes for them to retire, their pension will be there for them to collect, and the health insurance that they need to help them during their retirement years will be there and affordable for them as well.”

When Christie was selling that plan at raucous town halls across the state, public-sector union members frequently engaged him in shouting matches — and turned out to be handy foils.

“He did an amazing job in public. That’s the first time we came to understand the depths of his charisma and ability to persuade,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association.

The unions’ focus groups found that New Jerseyans who worked for the private sector harbored deep resentment toward what they saw as overly generous benefits for state workers. In one memorable research session, a man complained bitterly about the cushy life that his own father was enjoying by virtue of being a retired police officer.

Union officials believe that the political climate has shifted since then, in part because of the sacrifices they made. “This battle has got to be different,” Schnitzer said. “When Christie fails to make the [pension] payments, he’s failing to live up to his own commitments, and he’s acknowledging his own reforms were a failure.”

The opposition’s tactics also appear to have changed.

Eddie Donnelly, president of the New Jersey State Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, was among those who stood in silence as Christie warned of more reductions to come.

“We’ve lived up to our end of the deal,” Donnelly said. “This guy has consistently failed, but he continues to point the finger at public workers.”

The biggest round of applause at the hour-long town hall was for Larry Parker, a retired police chief whom Christie called upon during the question-and-answer session.

“We’re not here to talk about getting something for nothing. I don’t think any of us want to rob the New Jersey taxpayers. We are taxpayers,” Parker said. “Where does a 73-year-old man go and find a job?”

Christie assured him that current retirees would see their benefits preserved but said those who are entering the workforce now would be called upon to give up more.

Afterward, a number of those in the audience congratulated Parker for his eloquence. One of them was Christie’s father, Bill Christie, a retired accountant.

“It made me feel better about my position, but I’m concerned about a lot of the young officers,” Parker said.