Chris Christie aims to win New Hampshire voters over one at a time
The New Jersey governor is the 14th candidate to compete for the Republican nomination
When Chris Christie arrived at his first campaign event in Sandown, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, the day he announced his presidential candidacy, there might as well have been a “New Hampshire-or-Bust” bumper sticker under the New Jersey plate.
Christie crisscrossed the state over the next four days – 13 events total, including a bonus one, in bordering Maine – making his case for the presidency.
His focus on the first in the nation primary state is a crucial part of his strategy for reaching the White House – his East Coast brand of politicking isn’t expected to play well in conservative Iowa, the GOP race’s first contest or in South Carolina, the third state to weigh in.
“You all are going to be the ones who are going to decide who are the people who are really serious contenders for the White House, and you’re then going to send that group of us off to the rest of the country,” Christie said at a house party in Bristol on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m going to work hard to get your support.”
The “candid” candidate
Christie often tells New Hampshire audiences that he loves holding town halls events because it means he’s unfiltered by the media, or by his staff. He’s held more than a dozen here since January.
He often tells the story of a town hall held in Exeter at Shooter’s Sports Pub where he was challenged by a less than sober participant, pointing out he’s not looking for every person to agree with him.
“You’re going to shake your head sometimes and say, ‘I cannot believe he just said that.’ But here’s one thing you’ll never be able to say: ‘I don’t know what he thinks. I don’t know what he feels,’” Christie said of his positions at a town hall Wednesday night in Ashland.
Renee Plummer, an influential activist in the state, hosted a roundtable discussion with Christie in Portsmouth on Thursday and said the strategy is effective.
“I’m really surprised, it really has worked out well for him. He’s sitting there open and he’s saying, ‘Ask me.’ The person you see on TV is completely different than the one who sits here,” she said.
At the same time, Republican operatives in the state say if you’re going to copy the John “Straight-talk Express” McCain playbook of 2000 – when the senator held more than 100 town halls and surprised George W. Bush’s campaign by winning the Granite State primary – you have to have the right message as well.
According to the latest CNN/WMUR New Hampshire Primary poll, 44% of Republican primary voters say they have an unfavorable opinion of Christie, 31% have a favorable opinion and 26% say they don’t have an opinion or have never heard of him.
But Christie sounds confident the town hall strategy will change that.
“Most times when people leave these things, I’ve changed minds and it’s just a matter of me working hard enough to make sure I change enough minds,” he said after a town hall in Rochester on Thursday.
Ron Moskowitz, a retiree who was assessing Christie at a campaign stop in Nashua, said he loves Christie’s candidness.
“Credibility and honesty are an absolute, I’m not willing to compromise on that at all,” he said.
Moskowitz, a longtime conservative, also likes businessman Donald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
The waiting game
Since January, Christie has been building an operation in New Hampshire, but his ties run deeper than that. He has been maintaining relationships in the state since he first became a governor in 2009 and started visiting the state to support local candidates, as well as Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy in 2011.
But it wasn’t until this past week that he officially jumped in the race, and there are already 13 other official GOP candidates.
That means each of the campaigns has to lock up endorsements and donors quickly, said activist Renee Plummer. And the fundraising battle is already fierce.
However when it comes to the small state of New Hampshire, Plummer says, it’s more about finding endorsements rather than donors.
“What’s happened is there have been people who have endorsed candidates (and) now they’re upset, because they’re disappointed, or other candidates are percolating to the top,” Plummer told CNN.
Bernie Streeter, former Nashua mayor and executive councilor in New Hampshire, officially endorsed Christie this past week, along with two other New Hampshire influentials. He said Christie got in before it was too late.
“If he announced two weeks from now, or four weeks from now, people would criticize him for being so late,” Streeter told CNN. “New Hampshire people are kind of different, they gotta shake hands with the candidate, they don’t make up their minds right away.”
Being a sitting governor brings pros and cons
Another contender who announced in late June is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio are expected to jump in as well.
For many voters, the executive experience that comes along with the position is a big plus, but it’s also a balancing act.
When Christie was asked about low approval ratings in his home state, he said it’s happening to all of the governors who are looking towards the White House.
“All of them are suffering at home in the polls because people are saying, ‘Oh you’re not here as much,’” Christie said outside MaryAnn’s diner in Derry on Friday. “Folks have to get used to this new role that I’m playing and when they do, and they see that things still operate well in the state, they’ll be fine.”
For Barrington voter John Allard, Christie’s “hands on” experience as a governor is important.
“I think he’s done a real good job down there considering he’s a Republican and he’s had to work with Democratic senate house down there,” Allard told CNN at Christie’s town hall in Ashland. “I’m kind of waiting for Scott Walker but he hasn’t even announced yet so I don’t know whether he’s going to run or not.”
At the same time, Allard also had qualms about Christie’s time as a governor, saying Christie’s much discussed “hug” with President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy gave him pause.
“I didn’t think that was the greatest thing just before the election,” said Allard. “I would have given him a handshake if I was Christie.”
But at the roundtable in Portsmouth, Christie said his interaction with Obama was an example of how important bipartisanship is.
“I’m not happy that it was six days before the presidential election, but I’m much less happy, much less happy that that storm hit my state and I saw the destruction it had done to my people,” Christie said. “I will never apologize for what I did in the aftermath of Sandy, but the people of my state understand.”
Christie has also acknowledged that the Bridgegate scandal – where officials in his administration are under investigation for purposefully backing up traffic in a town as political retribution – will always be in the background of his candidacy. Christie has consistently denied knowledge of the plot.
“Its part of my record now whether I like it or not so I’d rather answer,” he said.
New Hampshire local Jeff Marple, who is thinking about supporting Christie, asked him about the scandal at Thursday’s roundtable but told CNN he was convinced by Christie’s response that he was guilt-free.
The science of the photo-op
On Saturday, Christie and fellow contender Sen. Marco Rubio woke up in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, at 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s lakeside summer home and prepared for one of the summer’s biggest photo-ops in New Hampshire, the 4th of July parade.
The parade in Wolfeboro stretches around two miles and includes many adorable children, patriotic outfits, and a chance to show off how many ground troops the campaign can muster up to march with.
Christie’s supporters just out-numbered Rubio’s at Saturday’s parade, and were very vocal in their cheering of “Go, Chris, go!”
Many of the viewers along the route in Wolfeboro said they were visiting from outside New Hampshire, but even though they couldn’t vote for Christie in the primary that didn’t stop them from taking a selfie with him.