His slogan carries a blunt message: “Tell it like it is.”
But the subtext of Chris Christie’s presidential campaign launch is just as clear: “I’m not a bully.”
The New Jersey Republican governor, known for his shoot-from-the-hip style, announced his White House bid on Tuesday by describing himself as an honest candidate who would never resort to “spin” or “pandering” in order to get elected.
For voters who like Christie, it may be one of the best reasons to vote for him. For Christie, it’s also the best possible spin on a negative image that has taken a serious toll on his national profile.
The governor immediately took his new mission on the road after his formal announcement in Livingston, New Jersey, by launching a multi-day tour of New Hampshire. In his first town hall event as a declared White House candidate in Sandown, Christie vowed to bring change to a Washington that has made the country “weaker and more vulnerable” and to always speak his mind.
“I’m going to tell you what I think and if you like it, great. If you don’t, my goodness you have 13 other candidates to pick from,” Christie said.
As he recalled his 2013 re-election fight against former Democratic State Sen. Barbara Buono, however, Christie emphasized that being a tough candidate is different from leveling nasty charges against opponents.
“You can absolutely lay your opponent out without saying a bad word,” Christie said. He added about Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton: “I’m going to beat her fair and square and take this country back.”
One person in the audience, Harold Williams of Hampstead, said it was a “what you see is what you get” quality that he finds appealing about the governor.
“I kind of think a known devil is better than an unknown devil,” said Williams, 68, who is undecided on whether to support Christie. “I don’t mind a person shooting off the hip as long as they can back it up.”
Political veterans say Christie’s famously bold and at times even confrontational style may work better in this early primary state than almost anywhere else.
In the 2000 presidential race, Arizona Sen. John McCain famously drove around the state in a campaign bus called the “Straight Talk Express.”
Casting himself as a truth-telling, no-nonsense politician to voters, McCain conducted more than 100 town halls across New Hampshire before handily beating George W. Bush in the primary.
Former New Hampshire GOP Rep. Charlie Bass said this same approach that helped give McCain his unexpected victory here 15 years ago could also hand Christie – whose numbers have recently sunk in national polls – a much-needed boost.
“People in New Hampshire like the kind of straight forward, honest, John McCain telling the lady in the back of the room who wouldn’t let him answer a question to shut up,” Bass said.
The suggestion that Christie is a bully is more “perception rather than reality,” Bass added.
“John McCain was far more irascible and tactless in his campaign style than Christie has been and he was not known as a bully,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because of Chris Christie’s size – he looks like a guy who could just squash you!”
The “tell it like it is” strategy is hardly without risks for the New Jersey governor, who has walked a fine line between being perceived by the public as a fighter and an intimidator.
It’s a particularly tricky role for Christie embrace in the aftermath of “Bridgegate” – the infamous lane closures on the George Washington Bridge in 2013 that created massive traffic jams in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Though Christie has not been implicated in the road closures, his poll numbers took a dive with voters signaling that the incident made Christie a less likeable figure.
“Obviously the situation with the traffic bridge, while it never touched him and just his close associates, I think people wonder a little bit about that,” said New Hampshire’s Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, who has not yet endorsed a 2016 presidential candidate. “I don’t think it’s a big issue, but it’s certainly there.”
In New Hampshire, 31% of Republican primary voters have a favorable view of Christie, while 44% have an unfavorable view, according to a CNN/WMUR poll released last week. After Jeb Bush, who is leading the pack in the state at 16% among GOP primary voters, Christie is tied with Ben Carson at 5%.
Christie will dedicate the rest of the week to introducing himself anew to voters in the Granite State. The governor has packed his schedule with no less than 10 events in four days, including town halls, house parties and meet-and-greets.
Meanwhile, another straight-talking GOP presidential candidate is also making the rounds in New Hampshire: Donald Trump. The real estate magnate spoke at a reception in Bedford shortly before Christie’s town hall event Tuesday evening.
Trump’s bombastic remarks have provided plenty of materials for headlines – many of them hardly flattering. His recent comments calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” in particular have drawn serious backlash and raised further questions about the seriousness of Trump’s candidacy.
Carole Neveux of Concord, who attended Christie’s town hall in Sandown on Tuesday and is likely to vote for the New Jersey governor, said she would never lump Christie and Trump together.
“Straight forward is fine. As a matter of fact, I like it. But with Donald Trump, his arrogance comes through,” Neveux told CNN. “Christie is not a fool around type of guy.”