Chris Christie is having his moment*

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  • Chris Christie is rising in the polls, but faces a barrage of negative ads from GOP contenders

Hooksett, New Hampshire (CNN)Chris Christie is having his moment.

Or, at the very least, a moment with an asterisk: the kind that puts him back in the presidential mix, not the sort that immediately vaults him to the top of the pack.
The New Jersey governor is getting a second or third look from voters as he continues to blitz through the Granite State. For more than a month, Christie continued a steady climb into the top candidate-not-named-Donald-Trump tier of GOP candidates in the state. Story after story about his town hall prowess are showing up in newspapers and newscasts. Nearly 9 million people watched a video of what has become a staple at those town halls: his poignant story of a successful law school classmate who succumbed to addiction. He's expanded his staff and started to make a play in Iowa -- a state most long assumed he'd ignore -- all while coming under attack by his rivals.
    "The reason they're coming after me now is because I'm doing well and my message is connecting," Christie told reporters Tuesday. "It's good to be attacked."
    Every candidate has a moment, but Christie is perhaps more in need of a second look than most presidential contenders. His problems are unusually extensive even in a fractured GOP field where voters seem unsure what they want. Poll after poll shows the New Jersey governor with high unfavorables inside the GOP primary electorate. His pathway beyond New Hampshire is littered with land mines, from the crucial southern states where he has limited operations to the overall lack of enthusiasm.
    Christie's move in the state has raised eyebrows in rival campaigns, especially those that are equally reliant on a strong New Hampshire showing to not only make their move in the race, but perhaps even to stay in it at all. Still, aides in those same campaigns look at Christie less as a long-term threat than a roadblock to their broader strategy. They see his body of work in New Jersey as a gold mine of potential attack ads they can deploy.
    A super PAC supporting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was the first to unload, rolling out two ads tying Christie to President Barack Obama over and over and over again. Sample line: "Chris Christie: One high-tax, Common Core, liberal-energy loving Obamacare Medicaid-expanding president is enough."
    The ad was packed with photos of Christie and Obama from the president's 2012 visit to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy -- a late election moment of comity between the two that many in the conservative blogosphere refuse to let Christie live down.
    While Rubio himself isn't legally allowed to coordinate with the outside group, he didn't hesitate to endorse their message.
    "This country cannot afford a president that's not going to reverse the direction Barack Obama's taken our country," Rubio told reporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "We can't have another president that supports Common Core or gun control or expanding Obamacare."
    A second ad from the group waded into the "Bridgegate" scandal, which sent Christie from the top tier of the Republican field down to the low single digits for much of 2015.
    "I just wonder what happened to the Marco who so indignantly looked at Jeb Bush and said, 'I guess someone must have convinced you that going negative against me helps you,'" Christie said when asked about the ads in a Monday Bloomberg Television interview. "I guess that same person must now have convinced Marco that going negative against Chris Christie is what he needs to do."
    But those ads are likely just the beginning. Credit downgrades, pension problems and low approval ratings in his home state are all being looked at by other GOP operations for use. Monday night's town hall alone may have provided a key quote.
    "If I can do for America what I've done for New Jersey, we'll be in pretty good shape," Christie said. Less than 10 minutes after that sentence was tweeted out, aides from two different rival campaigns, unsolicited, e-mailed the same thing: "You'll see that in a campaign ad soon."
    For Christie's part, the attacks are equal parts validation and opportunity. His campaign quickly churned out a fundraising e-mail to supporters with the subject line "They're nervous and it shows." As to his record, it's those town halls -- he'd hit 46 in the state by the end of Monday -- where he does his work combating the opposition.
    Christie's pitch: He's a Republican governor in a Democrat-dominated state who has fought tooth and nail with an unfriendly legislature to move conservative priorities forward. And New Jersey's credit downgrades? They came as a result of a mess he inherited.
    "We need an experienced, tested decision-maker in the Oval Office," Christie says, repeatedly. It's a not so-subtle dig at the outsiders in the race, as well as the senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who he targeted repeatedly during his nine-event, four-day swing through the state to kick off 2016.
    "I don't care whether your name is Barack Obama, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, you have never run a thing of consequence in your life," Christie said during a Manchester event.
    For the most part, Christie's efforts appear effective here. Mark Burns, the president of the Manchester Rotary Club, which hosted Christie on Monday, said he was convinced Christie's good poll numbers didn't tell the story of the momentum growing behind his candidacy. "It's deeper than that," said Burns of the support he's started to see in the community for the governor.
    At his final event of the day, he spent more than 45 minutes answering just the first two questions, one on how he brought his state back from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and another on drug addiction. The standing room-only crowd ate it up.
    As to Christie's pathway forward, it's not unlike many of his rivals. Get momentum from a better-than-expected showing in Iowa (where the bar is low), have a big night in New Hampshire on February 9 and then watch the whole game change. Christie predicted Monday that the field would be down to four by February 10. Take out two-thirds of the field's candidates and the ability to consolidate support, or move from a second or third choice to first, becomes much more realistic.
    For that to pathway to exist, New Hampshire remains the key. While Christie declined to give specifics when asked what he would define as "success" in the state, that much he acknowledged.
    "I've always said we need to do well here," Christie told reporters. "Now whether well is first second, third fourth it will depend on a lot of other factors."
    Christie's rise was perhaps best described by the candidate himself Monday night at the Concord town hall. He introduced his campaign chairman, Wayne MacDonald, at the event, he thanked him for sticking with him when the times were bad and now, when the times are good.
    "And right now," Christie said, "they are very good."