OLD BRIDGE, N.J. — The name of this middle-class township may evoke ugly memories of the Bridgegate scandal that has dogged Chris Christie for more than a year. But the New Jersey governor journeyed here anyway this week to see if he could revive his political mojo.
Overshadowed and fading in a Republican presidential field he once dominated, Christie hopes that returning to the raucous town halls that first made him a national star will give him a jolt.
Christie has been presiding over town hall meetings statewide, including one here Tuesday, which he proudly noted was his 134th since taking office. Next week, he will take his road show to New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, where he will convene two town hall meetings on a “Tell It Like It Is” tour.
The format showcases Christie at what many Republican activists consider his best: direct and in charge, demonstrating command over disparate issues and exhibiting little patience for bunk. As he warns his attendees at the start of each event, “If you give it, you are going to get it back.”
But being Christie isn’t as fun as it used to be — and not only because indictments may be near in the federal investigation of the George Washington Bridge lane closings in 2013 that engulfed his administration. He often finds himself humbled these days, as he did here in the Old Bridge High School’s gymnasium.
Christie’s sixth questioner, a kindergarten teacher, stood up and confessed that she had trouble viewing his pugnacious behavior as presidential.
“ ‘Shut up!’ ‘Sit down!’ ‘Idiot!’ ” Cheryl Meyer, 45, said, quoting some of Christie’s more famous outbursts. “My kids at home and my kids at school say, ‘Why does the governor do that?’ Now, I could say, ‘Jersey — we’re Jersey.’ But that’s not going to work in the United States.”
She continued, “I really feel that you need to tone it down a little bit if you want to become president of the United States.”
Christie acknowledged that he sometimes has crossed a line. “I’m not out here to be perfect,” he said. “But the one thing people never have to wonder about me is what I’m thinking.”
He added that “there’s a lot of political-speak that goes on in this business,” and he pledged never to spout “the blandest, most vanilla thing I can possible say that will not offend anybody.”
His perceived authenticity and straight talk is what Christie and his aides are counting on to propel a comeback in the crowded and competitive 2016 Republican sweepstakes.
In New Jersey, he is pushing a plan to reform the state’s pension benefits for public-sector workers; he spent the first 20 minutes of the Old Bridge town hall meeting trying to sell it. And nationally, Christie plans to start talking about overhauling Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He will lay out what his staff is billing as “a detailed proposal to address our long-term entitlement crisis” in a speech Tuesday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anslem College.
Christie’s advisers say that the governor’s willingness to speak out about entitlements — considered a third-rail issue because it is so politically treacherous — illustrates the kind of truth-telling candidate he would be.
Christie insists that he has not made a decision about a 2016 campaign. Despite staffing his political team and having a super PAC, he has not traveled as widely or done as much of the early-state spadework as many of his would-be rivals.
In recent polls, Christie has been foundering, at least compared with his exalted status on the heels of his 2013 reelection as governor. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine that November as the Republican presidential front-runner. (“The Elephant in the Room” was the headline.)
Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found Christie in eighth place on the GOP side. The poll said 38 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents viewed him favorably and 41 percent unfavorably.
There’s trouble at home, too. Christie’s job-approval rating is at a record low, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Thursday. It found that 54 percent of New Jersey voters disapprove of his performance and 41 percent approve.
Still, fortunes can change quickly in presidential politics — especially in New Hampshire. In mid-2007, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was left for dead, but he kept returning to the nation’s first primary state, holding one town hall meeting after another. He mounted a comeback that carried him to the 2008 GOP nomination.
Steve Duprey, a close friend of McCain and a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire, said Christie is wise to start holding town hall meetings early.
“You just have to authentically engage,” Duprey said. “John McCain did over 125 town hall meetings. He did them day after day, week after week, month after month. Some days we even did five.”
Christie says he holds so many town hall meetings in New Jersey because he fears being disconnected from the real world. “Your life can become, you know, a bit unreal,” he said at one such gathering in Whippany, N.J., last month.
In Old Bridge, Christie was in his element. Constituents sat in folding chairs that his staff carefully arrayed around a circle in the middle of the gym where the governor would speak. He stepped out from behind a blue curtain to the trombones and tubas of the school’s marching band playing, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
Christie first lectured the crowd about the pension system. “I’ve got 2
Christie’s supporters enjoyed the performance he put on, yet wondered whether he could sell on a bigger stage.
“I like Christie. He doesn’t take any guff from anybody,” said Brian Williams, 66, a retired New Jersey Turnpike maintenance worker.
But, Williams added, “there may be seven or eight or 10 or 12 Republicans, and he’s coming in last. I just think because of what happened over that Bridgegate, he lost a lot of momentum, and I don’t know if he’ll ever get it back.”