MANCHESTER, N.H. — As Chris Christie’s establishment rivals seize on his blue-state governing record, the New Jersey governor punched back here Tuesday with the kind of bluntness that had been his trademark but in this presidential campaign has been the domain of Donald Trump.
Signaling a turn among center-right candidates into a tougher phase, Sen. Marco Rubio charged that Christie has been too closely aligned with President Obama on gun control, health care and Common Core education standards, echoing twin attack ads aired here by his allied super PAC. Meanwhile, allies of Ohio Gov. John Kasich filled mailboxes in New Hampshire with a biting pamphlet that reads, “Chris Christie: Tough talk. Weak record.”
In an interview Tuesday with The Washington Post, Christie responded with a sharp broadside against Rubio and shrugged off Kasich, vowing that voters would coalesce around his candidacy in spite of his ideological impurity because he projects strength.
“I just don’t think Marco Rubio’s going to be able to slime his way to the White House,” Christie said. “He wants to put out a whole bunch of negative ads? Go ahead. I hope that he will acknowledge at some point that I couldn’t care less.”
Christie mocked Rubio as naive in the arts of political street fighting — “He’s never been in a tough race in his life,” he said dismissively — and tore into Rubio’s work in the “Gang of Eight” on a 2013 immigration bill that has since become anathema to conservatives.
“The guy who advocated for amnesty and then ran away when the topic got too hot tells you two things: He’s not a reliable conservative, A, and, B, whenever it gets too hot, Marco turns tail and runs,” he said. “I’m not the least bit concerned that Marco Rubio will hurt me with conservatives. Marco Rubio has work himself to do with conservatives.”
Christie’s blunt attacks on Rubio suggest he sees the senator from Florida as a clear obstacle in his bid to gain the Republican nomination. At the same time, signs of possible momentum for Christie in New Hampshire mean that he has emerged as a possible barrier for Rubio, who has no clear advantage in any of the early states.
Christie is gambling that, in a race dominated by Trump’s pugnacity, his attitude and experience will offset his past statements and blemishes. After he climbed the political ladder in heavily Democratic New Jersey, Christie’s national candidacy is now becoming a test of whether an outsize persona can blanket over a record seen by conservative activists as inconsistent, if not disloyal.
“He’s returning to form,” said Thomas H. Kean Sr., a former New Jersey governor and Christie mentor. “He’s a tough guy and he’s decided we’ve reached a stage in the campaign where people are looking for that, so he’s going to let that side of him show.”
In the recent past, Republican presidential primaries were shaped by whether candidates passed a series of ideological benchmarks. But the 2016 race has been dominated instead by personality. This shift is most evident in the front-running candidacy of Trump, whose past is littered with conservative apostasies.
“Nobody cares,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said. “Political records and promised plans have turned to dust in front of us. . . . That’s not what this election seems to be about for Republicans. It’s about rescuing the country before it goes over the cliff.”
The jockeying among four center-right candidates — Christie, Rubio, Kasich and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — is intensifying in the new year, especially here in New Hampshire, where there is a veritable traffic jam as they compete for the affections of mainstream primary voters.
“New Hampshire may be their last hurrah,” said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP consultant based in Washington. “They’re sailing into an election that is anti-incumbent, anti-the-past, and desperately looking for someone future-oriented. They’re adjusting to that mood while trying to beat each other.”
Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kasich attacked Christie by comparing their records as governor. “Here in Ohio, we have a balanced budget; they don’t over in New Jersey,” he said. “Our credit has been strengthened; their credit has been downgraded. We’ve got more jobs.”
Conservative Solutions, a pro-Rubio super PAC, is airing two ads in New Hampshire aimed squarely at Christie. The first is targeted at conservative voters and slams the New Jersey governor for having backed Common Core and expanded Medicaid under Obama’s health-care law. After images show Christie huddling with Obama after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, the narrator intones, “One high-tax, Common Core, liberal-energy-loving, Obamacare-Medicaid-expanding president is enough.”
The second ad, aimed at independent and moderate Republican voters, casts Christie as corrupt by noting the George Washington Bridge scandal that engulfed his administration in 2014.
Jeff Sadosky, a spokesman for the super PAC, said: “If Governor Christie hopes to be successful in New Hampshire, he’s going to do everything he can to paper over his record and the legacy he’s leaving in New Jersey. But it’s incumbent upon us to highlight that record.”
On the campaign trail Tuesday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rubio told reporters that he agreed with his super PAC’s ads.
“There’s nothing in them that’s inaccurate,” Rubio said. “I guess the point is something I would say, too, and that is that this country cannot afford a president that’s not going to reverse the direction Barack Obama’s taken our country. We can’t have another president that supports Common Core or gun control or expanding Obamacare.”
Added Rubio spokesman Alex Conant: “If Christie was honestly ‘telling it like it is,’ he would say there is nothing inaccurate about the new ads and stop attacking Marco.”
Christie swatted back at Rubio in the Post interview.
“If Marco thinks that . . . having his big donors from Madison Avenue put a few ads up in New Hampshire is going to shake me, that just again shows his inexperience and shows you what he’ll be like against Hillary Clinton,” he said. “If he’s overreacting to this — now — that just proves my point that he’s not ready to be the nominee.”
And when asked about Kasich, Christie deadpanned: “Kasich. John Kasich? He’s attacking me from the right? Okay. From the right? I mean, come on. Please.”
Conservative commentators have long been loudly skeptical of Christie’s beliefs and resentful that he has not courted them more assiduously. They see in Christie an eagerness to compromise with Democrats, as he has done with New Jersey’s Democratic legislature.
“Of course he’s vulnerable,” said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. “At the same time, he’s a good campaigner who’s got a focused long-shot strategy, who’s not flailing around with a hope and a prayer. . . . In a sense, it’s a little bit of the Trump effect, but with real governing experience.”
The Christie campaign believes that much of his past — especially his Hurricane Sandy embrace of Obama and the bridge incident — is “baked in” with voters, to use the political parlance.
“They’re not looking for someone they agree with 100 percent of the time,” Christie senior adviser Maria Comella said. “They’re looking for someone who is a grown-up, a strong, tested leader who can get things done.”
Christie said in the interview that he would survive the negative attention from his opponents. He pointed to his first gubernatorial race in 2009, when incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine spent tens of millions of dollars against him.
“The reason we won is because I had the better message and I was the better messenger,” Christie said. “I think every successful campaign is about tomorrow, not about yesterday. What yesterday does is to provide you some kind of foundation of credibility. But really, voters don’t vote on what you did. They vote on what you say you’re going to do.”