New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at his first town hall as a presidential candidate in Sandown, N.H., on Tuesday. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)
SANDOWN, N.H. – The real launch to the boisterous and unpredictable campaign that Chris Christie will run took place here Tuesday evening.
Sure, the New Jersey governor officially launched his candidacy earlier in the day in his home state, giving a passionate speech in which he promised strong leadership and “a campaign without spin.” But any hope Christie has of becoming the next president of the United States runs through this woodland state of just under a million registered voters.
His task is made harder by the fact that he has company — a lot of it — in the Granite State. Christie is one of at least six Republicans who must win or place very high in the New Hampshire primary next winter to have any shot at the party’s nomination.
So the 52-year-old governor will have to collide, again and again over the coming months, with the hardheaded, skeptical voters who make up this state. And he will have to temper his penchant, even his appetite, for bluntness, since New Hampshire voters may not respond well to his more confrontational side.
“People say town hall meetings are his forte. I think that remains to be seen,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, president of The Josiah Bartlett Center, a conservative think tank in the state. “A town hall in your state when you’re governor is one thing. A town hall in another state when you’re running for president is entirely different.”
“This is our whole shtick, which is that New Hampshire voters are serious. They know about issues. They ask tough questions. They are a vetting service for the rest of the country,” said David Carney, a Republican operative who lives in New Hampshire.
Christie indicated at more than one point here that he does not intend to tone himself down very much.
“I have no interest in breaking the greatest rule my mother ever gave me. She said, ‘Christopher be yourself, because then tomorrow you don’t have to try to remember who you pretended to be yesterday,’” he said. “The only way I want to be president is if I get to be me, and you get to be you.”
Democrat James Demers, a Concord-based lobbyist who is advising former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign, said that he expects Christie to do “awful” in the state.
“You can only yell at people and tell them to shut up so many times,” Demers said, referring to some of Christie’s run-ins with voters in New Jersey. “I don’t think people in New Hampshire like that. People do stand up and challenge candidates.”
Christie has been preparing for New Hampshire for years. In New Jersey, he has done 139 town hall meetings since taking office in 2009, gaining considerable experience in give-and-take with voters.
He plans to spend most of his time as an official candidate now here, connecting with as many voters as possible in the same format. He has three town hall meetings planned this week here in the state, and will be here for five consecutive days. This is how he hopes to move over the summer and fall from a position back in the pack to the front: by coming here, staying here, and holding lots of town halls that will allow him to win over voters one by one through force of his charisma.
It was apparent here Tuesday night that Christie was eager to get started.
Earlier in the day, he said, he’d held an event “to tell everybody something that folks have been talking to me about it seems like almost forever now.
“But now I’ve finally decided,” he said, striding back and forth in the round inside a wood-paneled building literally called Sandown Town Hall. He took off his suit jacket as his wife and four children watched from the front row. A line of sweat trickled down his left temple.
“I love this interaction,” he said later.
Christie’s campaign slogan — “Telling It Like It Is” — is not based around an idea. It is centered around his personality: brash, rough-hewn, quick with a quip, and often funny.
Christie took pleasure in telling the story of how his critics predicted that he would self-destruct during his reelection campaign against Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono in 2013.
“This tough guy — blunt, direct — this is going to be a disaster. He’s going to do something or say something to this woman that’s just going to make him lose,” Christie said, voicing the hopes of his enemies.
“They were waiting for that to happen. By the way, they’re still waiting,” he said. “I ran against a female opponent, and I not only beat her, I beat her good. And if I’m the nominee of the Republican party for president in November of 2016, I’m not only going to beat her, I’m going to beat her fair and square and take this country back.”
He held the crowd in his hand when he told stories from the 9/11 attacks: how he couldn’t reach his wife, Mary Pat, for five hours and how the best friend of his 21-year-old son lost his father that day.
“I’ve now watched as that young man has grown up from 8 to 21 without his dad, and every year on his father’s birthday … he puts his father’s picture on his Facebook page and he says, ‘I’ll never forget you, Dad,’” Christie said. He then attacked Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for opposing the renewal of the Patriot Act this year.
“Sen. Paul has made this country less safe,” Christie said.
And Christie drew laughs as he told the story of how he responded to friends who asked him whether it bothered him that his wife, a Wall Street executive, made more money than he did.
“I said, ‘Guys, remain calm. I got three words for you: joint checking account,” he cracked.
Arlinghaus, despite his question about whether Christie will translate from New Jersey, said that in a recent appearance, he had liked what he had seen.
“I thought he was great, and I liked him a lot,” he said. For Christie, Arlinghaus said, talking directly to voters as is the custom in New Hampshire “fits so well with his personality and who he’s been.”
“He’s not trying to create a new persona. I think that might work for him,” he said.
Carney was less optimistic.
“I think he will have a lot of shoppers and a lot of people will kick the tires, but I just don’t think he’ll make the sale,” Carney said. “The problem is there’s too many other quality candidates. You want a proven governor? We’ve got a bunch of them.
“In the past, you had to swallow more minuses and negatives. Now, people are going to take their time and pick the best. They love Christie and what he does and his smackdown of union thugs, but when it comes down to it, there are other folks who have done that and have less baggage,” he said.
Christie’s last words to the group of about 300 people inside the town hall on Tuesday night — before he taped an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity — made it clear that he knows his fortunes will rise or fall in this state.
“If it all works out, we’ll see each other in January 2017 in Washington, D.C., and you can be guaranteed I’ll be saying to myself, ‘Thank you, New Hampshire,’” he said.
(Cover tile photo: Darren McCollester/Getty)