In New Hampshire, Chris Christie looks to rebound

Keene, New Hampshire CNN  — 

Spend a few days with Chris Christie in New Hampshire and you will see a man making up for lost time.

The New Jersey governor, who so recently was celebrated as the future Republican standard-bearer, has watched his front-runner status slip as new faces enter the race for the party’s presidential nomination.

In New Hampshire, a state his aides consider to be crucial for his success, only 3 percent of Republican voters say they plan to support him, according to a recent WMUR Granite State poll. (The same survey found that just 5 percent had made a firm commitment, a fact Christie himself quickly reminds anyone who trots it out.)

In 2014, Christie put down roots in New Hampshire for his future campaign, paying regular visits to the state.

But until recently, political analysts and voters here have complained that Christie has been absent since the midterm elections in November.

“He lost six months’ time since last November to April. He was only here once during that period,” Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire state party chairman, told CNN. “That was a mistake. Christie cannot afford to languish for the next three to six months.”

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Which might be why, for two days this week, Christie embarked on a meet-and-greet tour of the Granite State, where he visited a drug treatment center in Manchester, fielded face-to-face questions with voters at a restaurant in Sunapee, selfie’d his way through a breakfast diner in Amherst, delivered keynote addresses at party fundraiser in Keene and hosted a town hall-style gathering in Dover.

The swing was his first public trip since Christie’s former aides were indicted for their alleged involvement in a scheme to shut down lanes on a major bridge in New Jersey as an act of retribution against a local official who didn’t endorse the governor’s re-election in 2013. The fallout from the scandal has not helped Christie’s image with Republican voters, even though investigators were unable to find evidence tying him to the scheme. Now, as the GOP primary seasons races forward, Christie is working fast to move on.

“I don’t think you would find one administration, whether it’s at the governor’s level or at the presidential level, that hasn’t made mistakes and had problems,” Christie said in Manchester Friday morning when a reporter asked how primary voters might perceive his aides’ involvement in the bridge scandal. “What matters is how you respond to it.”

Although support for him has softened here in the past year, his New Hampshire backers said they don’t think the 2013 bridge fiasco will ultimately upend his chances.

“It would have to be something bigger than shutting down a lane on a bridge. Come on,” said Mary Grenier from Lempster. “They’re always late for work in New York. It’s a mess to begin with. So you have one less lane or two less lanes? Big deal!”

But, like others who spoke to CNN, Grenier stressed that Christie will need to spend more time in the state than he has over the past six months.

“I don’t think he’s here enough,” she conceded.

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In April, however, Christie picked up the pace with his first big multi-town visit of the year. After Christie’s trip this week, he plans to pay two more visits this month, carrying on a busy travel schedule that is likely to carry on into primary season.

“You’re going to have me around,” Christie promised a group of supporters that jammed into a restaurant in Sunapee to see him Thursday. “You’ll be able to ask me almost anything you want.”

And ask they did. Near the restaurant’s bar, surrounded by wood-paneled walls lined with big game trophies, onlookers bombarded Christie with questions about immigration, student loan reform and whether he could survive a Republican primary without catering to right-wing ideological tastes.

“What I’m looking for is a Republican who can be in the middle. The problem is, in order to win the primary, you’ve got to be extreme,” Art Bobruff, a man from Springfield, told Christie as he nursed a cocktail.

“Listen,” Christie said. “I think you just have to be who you are. If that’s good enough to win the nomination, then it’s good enough. I wouldn’t want to be President without being able to be who I am.”

Bobruff shot him a skeptical look.

“But you don’t feel the need to appeal to the right in order to get the Republican nomination?” Bobruff asked.

“I want to appeal to everybody, but I want to appeal to everybody on my terms,” Christie said.

Indeed, that does appear to the theme of Christie’s presidential endeavor – his visits are branded as the “Tell It Like It Is” tour. When asked about hot-button topics during his trip, Christie, at times, didn’t sound like a typical Republican presidential candidate.

“I think global warming is real. I don’t think that’s deniable,” Christie said during the fundraiser Thursday in Keene. “And I do think human activity contributes to it.”

When quizzed on immigration, Christie wouldn’t go as far as to say he supported providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the United States illegally, but he expressed openness to reforms that would provide some sort of legal work status for them. He also made clear his opposition to building a border-wide fence atop Mexico, a campaign promise other candidates have adopted to please immigration hardliners in the past.

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He also appeared to take a veiled shot at his potential competitors on the right, particularly Republican lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, who fought a battle over Obamacare in 2013 that ended in a government shutdown.

“We need leadership in Washington again that understands that closing down the government isn’t the right thing to do,” Christie said. “When you’re hired to govern, and you close down the government, it seems to me a de facto failure.”

It’s that kind of real talk that Christie believes will make him stand out in the field, but as some here noted, may have consequences down the line.

“He says what’s on his mind, even if it’s blunt,” said Whitney Aldrich, a Republican from Walpole who watched him speak Thursday. “But it could get him into trouble.”