Chris Christie plots his comeback

Washington (CNN)Whatever happened to Chris Christie?

The question has percolated in GOP circles since the new year began, with presidential primary state activists wondering why the New Jersey governor isn't doing a better job keeping in touch and rival GOP campaigns happily pointing to Christie's diminished stature in the polls.
Even sympathetic Republicans are scratching their heads.
"Every other candidate is showing up here, and people are coming to me like, 'What's going on?'" said South Carolina State Rep. Phyllis Henderson, who just a few months ago was preparing to serve as a key Christie point person in the early primary state. "And I really don't know what they are doing here. I haven't had any indication that they are planning to visit or what the plan is. I haven't really talked to them in a while."
    Like other Republicans, Henderson's interest has drifted to other potential candidates, in her case Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
    But after a political winter that Christie would like to forget, the New Jersey governor and his advisers are re-calibrating for an early summer campaign launch designed to capitalize on Christie's considerable strengths as a retail campaigner and position him as a truth-telling underdog in the style of John McCain.

    'Tell it like it is' tour

    He begins that quest next week with a multiday "Tell it like it is" tour of New Hampshire, the launchpad primary state that rescued McCain's 2008 sputtering, low-budget primary campaign after he decided to devote his energy to winning over the state's finicky voters one intimate town hall at a time.
    Christie's team, aware they can no longer rely on the establishment forces that were propping him before last year's Bridgegate fiasco, is hoping that his personal charisma and Jersey-tested ability to engage with voters in unscripted settings will produce a similar outcome.
    "John McCain was left for dead in 2007 and 2008, and look what happened," said Bill Greiner, a New Hampshire businessman and Christie supporter. "Gov. Christie is very similar to McCain. He has a willingness to tell you things whether you like it or not. He will do the things you need to do to win here, in small groups, in town halls, on the grass-roots level."
    Like other allies, Greiner scoffed at the suggestion that Christie's campaign is a nonstarter with Republicans.
    "How do you write someone off when he hasn't even started campaigning?" he asked. "It's laughable and it's head-scratching and it doesn't make any sense. You have to let him and everybody else campaign. Do I think the governor has a fork in him? Absolutely not."
    Christie supporters are telegraphing that everyone-calm-down to donors and a trigger-happy media that has already anointed Jeb Bush as the top choice of the Republican establishment and the man to beat for the nomination.
    "Just like the governor has said publicly many times now, it is very early in this process and he feels very good about where he is," said longtime Christie confidante Bill Palatucci.
    Like other potential candidates, he also has the backing of a super PAC, America Leads, helmed by a top strategist from Christie's successful tenure as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

    Challenging route

    But today, Christie will undoubtedly face a more challenging route to the Republican nomination if and when he launches a campaign — likely sometime in late May or early June — than he did after he helped steer Republicans to a dominant showing in last year's midterm elections.
    His poll numbers are ugly: A Washington Post/ABC poll last week found that 41% of Republicans view him unfavorably.
    But perhaps the most devastating indicator of his fraught path emerged in early March, when a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 57% of Republicans could not see themselves supporting Christie for the GOP nomination. The only Republican name to fare worse on that question was Donald Trump.
    Conservatives have been wary of Christie for years now, a fracturing that began when he appeared with President Barack Obama for a tour of the New Jersey coastline in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, a series of photo-ops that lent the President a sheen of bipartisan credibility just days before the 2012 presidential election.
    His standing on the right eroded further with the passage of some gun restrictions and a New Jersey version of the DREAM Act. The business wing of the GOP, meanwhile, has looked with alarm at New Jersey's steep tax rates and multiple credit downgrades.
    But Christie's workmanlike chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, which showcased his fundraising abilities and appetite for political combat, was a resounding success that saw Republicans win in blue states like Maryland, Illinois and Massachusetts.
    The post-midterm victory lap was supposed to help him regain his footing as a top choice for the GOP establishment, until Bush surprised the political world over the holidays by jump-starting his campaign and locking in precious support from Republican donors who had previously been warm to Christie.

    Self-inflicted wounds

    Bush's moves coincided with a series of damaging self-inflicted wounds that plagued Christie's image throughout the fall and winter, like when he memorably told a heckler to "sit down and shut up" at an event on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. It was a reminder that Christie's blunt personality can also come off as tone-deaf and grating.
    After New Year's, he was photographed cavorting with Jerry Jones in the Dallas Cowboys owner's box during an NFL playoff game, an example of Christie's seemingly incessant need to ingratiate himself with the rich and famous.
    In February, Christie sparked an uproar when he said parents should have "a measure of choice" in deciding whether to vaccinate children, a comment that infuriated medical experts and confounded Republican elites who viewed the comment as decidedly unserious.
    Today, Christie is near the bottom of the pack in polls of the Republican horse race. The Washington Post/ABC poll showed Bush leading the still-developing GOP field at 21%. Christie clocked in at 7%. There is little predictive power in those early surveys, but they track how Christie's stock has fallen from 2013, when he led polls of the GOP race.
    Christie has not backed away from the political work needed to build a potential campaign. He has launched a political action committee, hired new staffers and made appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire, including a January appearance at Iowa Rep. Steve King's "Freedom Summit" that satisfied some skeptical conservatives.
    At home, he is embracing an issue — pension reform for public employees — reminiscent of early budget-trimming efforts and the clashes with teachers unions that first endeared him to national Republicans after he took office in 2010.
    With questions about his national hopes swirling, the legislative session remains Christie's priority, aides say.

    Town halls

    But they are buttressing his agenda in Trenton with more of the lively town hall meetings that helped make him famous — he has held 130 of them since taking office — warming him up for the New Hampshire retail circuit.
    "He is a hardworking guy and he is very good at the format," said Christie adviser Mike DuHaime. "He is good at listening to constituents in New Jersey, hearing their concerns, and he's able to show his knowledge on policy and translate it to people. And he certainly doesn't mind letting people know when he disagrees with them."
    New Hampshire's tradition of elevating underfunded insurgents and scrappy campaigners from both parties makes the state vital for Christie — and his team knows it. The state's primary is also open to independents, the kind of fiscally minded voters Christie has long claimed he can appeal to beyond the traditional GOP ranks.
    But Christie's recent activity in the Granite State, or lack thereof, has confused some activists there.
    He seemed to waffle on an invitation to a big Republican forum sponsored by the state GOP — the New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit — only to commit after the rest of his potential opponents eagerly signed up.
    Even stranger, Christie declined in March to donate a necktie to the Grafton County Republican Committee charity tie auction. It's a quirky tradition and perhaps only a small slight on Christie's part, but the snub did not go unnoticed by a New Hampshire political class that follows even the most obscure developments with great interest.
    READ: Bad press ensued. "As several Republican contenders aggressively court New Hampshire voters and campaign donors, Gov. Christie appears to be fading fast and early," WMUR political director and anchor Josh McElveen declared on Manchester television in late March.
    Before his town hall tour was announced on Monday, locals were grumbling that Christie had only been to New Hampshire one time in 2015, a gripe Christie supporters scoff at considering his repeated visits during last year's midterm elections.
    Steve Duprey, a former McCain adviser who has not committed to support anyone in the GOP race, said the complaints are "much ado about not very much."
    "I think he is focusing on New Jersey and taking care of stuff as best he can in the legislature," Duprey said. "Do I think he is hurting himself by paying attention to the legislature and not paying attention to Iowa or New Hampshire right now? My attitude now is so what? He's done so much up here already."