Chris Christie faces the storm

Gov. Chris Christie on State of the Union: Full Interview
Gov. Chris Christie on State of the Union: Full Interview

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    Gov. Chris Christie on State of the Union: Full Interview

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Gov. Chris Christie on State of the Union: Full Interview 10:34

Story highlights

  • Chris Christie has faced a barrage of negative ads in New Hampshire
  • His support has been built on town halls and personal appeal
  • He had to give up valuable campaign days when he returned to New Jersey during the weekend storm

Littleton, New Hampshire (CNN)Chris Christie could've done without a record-breaking blizzard.

It's the dilemma any sitting governor must accept if running for president: How to balance the demands of a campaign that requires retail politicking in places such as New Hampshire against the need to show executive leadership at home during a crisis. Yet it came at a particularly urgent time for Christie, whose campaign is banking on a strong showing in New Hampshire.
His decision to go back to New Jersey wasn't made lightly. Christie's campaign operation is based less on carpet-bombing the airwaves with ads and more on the governor meeting voters in person. More than 50 town halls, 150 total events and 64 days in the state were the backbone of a rise in the state into the top non-Donald Trump tier of candidates.
But his surge brought a swift and relentless stream of attacks from rivals Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and their respective super PACs. They hit Christie on everything from his state's economic record to his positions on abortion and gun control. They even highlighted his perceived original sin: the embrace of Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just before the Democrat beat Mitt Romney to win a second term.
"He has been crucified over the last few weeks," said Mike Dennehy, an unaffiliated Republican operative in New Hampshire. "It's a shame for Chris Christie because he really did have momentum."

'Christied'

Dennehy described how he came home from work one evening to two campaign mailers attacking Chris Christie's record. He shrugged it off, walked inside and flipped on his Pandora. The first ad to interrupt his streaming music: an attack on Christie. He later grabbed his remote and flipped on the news. It was a matter of minutes before back-to-back ads targeting Christie were on the airwaves.
Christie's favorability dropped from 53% in the December poll to 41% now to the CNN/WMUR poll released on Wednesday. His unfavorability numbers jumped to 47% from 34% the month prior.
"It has had an impact in stalling his momentum," said John Formella, a Christie supporter and volunteer who chairs the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Republicans, of the attacks.
The chief strategist for the super PAC supporting Kasich even coined a term for the effect the attacks had on Christie: being "Christied."
Asked about the term Sunday by CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union," Christie brushed it off.
"We're simply not going to engage in that game," he said. "We have remained focused, whether it's in the debates or in our campaign, of putting our vision forward and moving ahead. So, just because the Kasich campaign made up a new word, I congratulate them that they're expanding their vocabulary. That's good for America's education, I guess."

Town halls, positive ads

Christie and his aides reject any concept of stalled momentum, pointing out that polls throughout New Hampshire have been topsy-turvy for weeks. And the brief detour provided an opportunity for Christie to highlight in real-time a key element of his campaign pitch: executive leadership in difficult situations, the kind unmatched by the "first-term senators" he derides in just about every public appearance he makes.
"It's the point I've been trying to make to everybody, and I think the storm helps make it really clearly to folks, it matters what you've done before, it matters," Christie said on "State of the Union."
"You know some candidates in this race who tell you it doesn't matter, what you've done before, it does," he added. "It does matter, it does matter are you going to be ready when you sit in that chair on the very first day."
He then swiped at Rubio for joking about the storm's effect of shutting down the White House serving as "probably one of the best things to happen" in Washington in awhile.
"That shows a real immaturity from Marco Rubio to be joking as families were freezing in the cold, losing power and some of them losing their loved ones," Christie said, demonstrating that he's more than willing to counterpunch.
Christie does have his own ads up on the air in New Hampshire markets, all of the positive variety. He has hundreds of volunteers -- including his dad, Bill -- knocking on thousands of doors each weekend. He's trying to fill any ad gap with free media, appearing at a regular clip on MSNBC, Fox News, conservative and local radio and everything in between.
The super PAC America Leads, which booked nearly $7 million in ads in New Hampshire and Boston markets last year for just this moment, will continue highlight Christie's patented town hall performances and straight to camera message to voters.
And Christie's wife, Mary Pat, picked up much of his schedule in New Hampshire when he went home to deal with the storm, ably grabbing the microphone and unexpectedly hosting a town hall Friday night that one Christie aide, with a sly grin, claimed "had more people than a Kasich event and lasted longer than a Rubio event."
But that may not be enough to match up with the tonnage of negative ads against him, Dennehy said.
"He's going to a gunfight with a sword," he said. "He doesn't even have a sword. He has a jackknife."

Establishment lane out of New Hampshire

The overall narrative, one to which Christie himself subscribes to, is that come February 10, the field will be cut down to four or five. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are guaranteed slots, then two of "New Hampshire or Bust" crowd move on with them. Rubio is expected to be in, which leaves one spot for Bush, Christie and Kasich. Finishing below Bush, Kasich or both, is likely campaign-killing.
Between Christie's campaign and the super PAC supporting it, there is enough money to get through the South Carolina primary, according to people familiar with both, where the campaign already has television ads booked in the state. A big showing in New Hampshire could jar loose the kind of money sitting on the sidelines that can get him into March, where a handful of Northeastern states and in contests in places such as Michigan and Virginia offer an opportunity to rack up strong showings and delegates.
Christie, who ran the Republican Governors Association in 2014 when it helped boost seven new GOP governors into office and helped another 17 hold onto their positions, is eyeing significant fundraising networks that could be tapped if he can demonstrate more life than Bush and Kasich in New Hampshire.
Christie arrived back in the New Hampshire on Sunday afternoon in time for a town hall in Portsmouth, pulling his schedule back in track. An open primary combined with polls that show more than 40% of the state's likely Republican voters still up for grabs, underscore a key point: the door is still open.
"He's in the game. You'd love to be at the top, like Trump, but he's in the game," said Formella, the local GOP official working in support of Christie.
Aides say the campaign is entering its most aggressive stage and he'll be holding three more events Monday before his wife takes over campaigning.
"This is all going to come down to who's working the hardest at the end and who's going to make a connection," Christie told reporters last week. "Everybody from Trump on down should not feel the least bit comfortable about where they are or distraught about where they are. We've got two debates between now and then. There's a lot to do, so I feel good."