TRENTON, N.J. — Chris Christie, riding high in national polls and bounding with self-confidence, headed to the Hamptons two summers ago for a round of fundraisers with Republican glitterati and members of the Bush family network. Over cocktails, financiers intrigued by Christie’s blue-state appeal and eager to back a winning presidential candidate signaled that they would coalesce around the New Jersey governor in the 2016 race.
But two years later, as Christie prepares to formally jump into the contest Tuesday, his status as the establishment favorite for the GOP nomination has vanished. Dogged by scandals and plummeting popularity in his home state, Christie has seen many of the mega-donors who once toasted him drift toward his rivals, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Still, the outsize persona that made Christie a Republican rock star early in his first term remains: part former federal prosecutor and part suburban dad yelling at a soccer game. As the once-soaring hopeful gets ready to become the 14th official GOP presidential contender during a rally Tuesday at Livingston High School, his alma mater, he is banking on his liveliness to revive his wilted prospects.
“I get accused a lot of times of being too blunt and too direct and saying what’s on my mind just a little bit too loudly,” Christie said in a two-minute Web video released over the weekend, adding that his Sicilian mother taught him to never “hold anything back.”
His slogan, “Telling It Like It Is,” reiterates the message that his aggressiveness is an asset.
Christie will take his roadshow later Tuesday to New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, where he will stay for the rest of the week for a series of town-hall meetings and diner stops. It is at those gatherings, in a state that has at times shown a soft spot for more-centrist Northeast Republicans, where his advisers believe he can gradually win support from voters left unexcited by others in the crowded field.
Christie’s hawkish foreign policy — he has spoken derisively of noninterventionists and critics of the National Security Agency — could also play well there. So could his work to curb prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and put them into treatment.
Christie’s posturing as a truth-teller will extend to long-term federal spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which he has advocated overhauling as he has moved closer to launching his bid for the White House. For the former, he has called for raising the retirement age to 69.
In New Hampshire and other battleground states, Christie is likely to encounter difficulties and deep pockets of conservative skepticism about his politics. Those doubts began to build in 2012, when he worked agreeably with President Obama on hurricane relief in the closing days of the presidential campaign and his relationship with Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s team grew icy.
Cultural conservatives, too, have their concerns. A previous supporter of abortion rights, Christie has since become an antiabortion voice. He once backed the Common Core school standards, which are anathema to GOP activists, and then sought distance from them.
Christie’s statements on gun control have also stirred suspicions about his conservative inclinations, as when he called in April for the “right balance” between public safety and gun ownership. The National Rifle Association declined to invite him this year to its annual convention.
Then there are Christie’s problems at home. In late 2013, a politically motivated traffic snarl engulfed his administration and led to indictments for several former aides. Shuttered casinos in Atlantic City and a cascade of credit downgrades have rattled the state’s economy, and a pension system touted by Christie now has billions in unfunded liabilities.
More recently, the governor has drawn headlines mostly for outbursts and missteps, from his awkward, gone-viral embrace of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to his position on child vaccines. On a trip abroad, he appeared to question whether vaccines should be mandatory, only to later walk back the comments.
The competition for money and votes on the GOP side is fierce. Bush has already signed up some of the party’s biggest donors, as has Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been boasting for months that he was able to win in a Democratic state without watering down his principles. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is expected to enter the race next month, has a pitch that echoes Christie’s with its focus on his frank personal style and compassion. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has a similar flair for political combat.
Bush has even made inroads into Christie’s inner circle in New Jersey, poaching state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R), Christie’s former gubernatorial campaign chairman, and hosting dinners for former Christie loyalists.
The governor’s group of unwavering supporters, led by Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone and strategists Bill Palatucci and Mike DuHaime, keep urging naysayers to be patient. In time, and especially after the primary debates begin in August, they argue, Christie will stitch together a coalition.
Until then, Christie plans to plod ahead, town hall meeting by town hall meeting, seeking to recapture the political magic that drew millions of clicks on YouTube in 2010, when his office began uploading his clashes with public-school teachers, and he landed on the covers of conservative magazines and was cheered by right-wing television personalities.
That Christie was unburdened by traffic scandals and at ease in the spotlight. The political controversies that have stuck to him like barnacles have slowed him, but with Hillary Rodham Clinton looming as the Democratic front-runner, he sees room for a pugilist with a common touch to emerge as her forceful foil.
“Mrs. Clinton doesn’t hear from anybody, she doesn’t talk to anybody, she doesn’t take questions from anybody,” Christie told ABC News this month. “How would she know what real Americans are really concerned about?”