Exeter, N.H. — “Listen, I will come back to New Hampshire,” Chris Christie tells the crowd of about 150 Granite Staters packed into Shooters Pub on Friday evening. “And if I do run for president, that’s exactly what I’ll do as often as I can, right here in New Hampshire, because there’s no place, as you know, there’s no place that takes it any more seriously — the picking of a president — than New Hampshire.”
Shooters Pub is a hole-in-the-wall nestled in a residential area of Exeter, population 14,000. It’s connected, through a door, to a twelve-lane bowling alley that’s been around since 1946. It’s in venues like this that the Chris Christie comeback tour (as everybody is calling it), underway for a while now, is taking place.
This comeback has been a work in progress, and it will be a heavy lift. It’s an attempted comeback not just from the Bridgegate scandal but from the unwanted attention that scandal brought on the rest of Christie’s world. He wasn’t just a vindictive jerk, the press started to say, but he might be presiding over an administration guilty of criminal acts; his attempted reforms, particularly of the state’s beleaguered pension system, were coming up short; he didn’t return phone calls, write thank-you notes, or solicit support eagerly enough; he racked up bills on luxury travel; and he rooted a little too enthusiastically for the wrong sports teams.
Even his boffo performance this past year as the head of the Republican Governors Association, for which he raised record sums and helped produce unexpected victories for the GOP in states such as Massachusetts and Maryland, haven’t been enough to change the narrative. And so Christie has tried in recent months to reassure supporters that he’s still in the game as they and everybody else assess the rest the Republican field.
“He’s not in a good place,” says a top Republican operative. “He’s so peripheral at this point, he’s really gotta get himself back in the middle of things. He better do something; he better do something big, and he better do it quick, or this whole thing is just gonna pass him by.”
The much-vaunted comeback has been slow to take hold. News that a federal inquiry into the 2013 Bridgegate scandal did not implicate him wasn’t enough, even though the Washington Post said last September that, with the investigation over, Christie was poised to reclaim front-runner status. Since then, the New Jersey governor has conducted dozens of town-hall meetings across New Jersey and, using his perch as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, campaigned for dozens of Republican gubernatorial candidates across the country.
Whether the governor has a political future at all may now rest on his performances here in New Hampshire. He hosted a town hall in Londonderry on Wednesday, toured the Made in New Hampshire Expo with Manchester mayor Ted Gastas, and delivered remarks at the First in the Nation Summit in Nashua. According to a senior aide, Christie will unveil a series of policy proposals by the end of June on entitlement reform, national security, energy, and tax and economic policy.
#related#That’s an almost certain prelude to a presidential bid, and the project began at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester on Tuesday, when Christie outlined an ambitious plan for tackling entitlements that covers everything from Social Security to Medicaid to disability. These proposals will give Christie a chance to return to his political roots: that is, to tangle with voters about his controversial proposals and go to the mat defending them. After defeating New Jersey governor Jon Corzine in 2009, Christie rose to political stardom by duking it out with his constituents over proposed reforms to teacher tenure and doing some teaching of his own about how to have a respectful conversation.
You could see him in New Hampshire on Friday re-creating the scenes that became familiar to New Jersey voters. Christie’s plan to reform entitlements would raise the retirement age for Social Security to 69 from 65 and subject it to means testing, which means that poorer seniors would qualify for greater benefits than those who are well-off.
As Christie delves into the details, a middle-aged man shouts from the back, near the bar. “Social Security is not an entitlement benefit!” he says.
“It is an entitlement, sir, it is,” Christie replies. He paces to and fro, a dartboard affixed to the wall behind him.
The man keeps at him. So many illegal immigrants have come into the country, and they’re surely collecting disability. Why should I, who have taken care of myself and seen myself into old age, have to forgo the money I contributed to this program?
“Sir, if you need Social Security, it will be there for you,” Christie says. He continues:
Look at what I proposed. If you have $200,000 in income, retirement income, other than Social Security, I’m saying, you shouldn’t take Social Security even if you paid for it. There’s lots of things you pay for that you don’t get money back for. You buy homeowner’s insurance on your house in case your house burns down. At the end of it, when you sell your house, do you go back to the insurance company and say, ‘Hey, you know what, my house didn’t burn down, I’d like three-quarters of the money back’? I mean, you don’t, because the security that went with it is that if your house did burn down, you were going to be taken care of.
It goes on like this for several minutes. The gentleman asks why we can’t start by cutting something else. “I haven’t heard one bit from you tonight about how we’re going to cut spending. How ’bout we start getting rid of things like, you know, all these departments like Commerce, Agriculture. How about the IRS, you know; aren’t they in Vegas partying right now?” he asks.
Swatting down easy and comfortable notions is what Christie lives for, and where he is at his best. “How ’bout we agree to this,” he says. “How ’bout if we eliminate every department in the federal government. Eliminate everything. Let me tell you what’s going to happen. It’s nothing, it is nothing, comparatively speaking, to what we’re spending on these other things. Now I understand it’s an uncomfortable fact, but it is a fact.”
New Hampshirites see a lot of presidential hopefuls — there are no fewer than 17 here this weekend — but they seem to like Chris Christie. A crowd, not just the media, is here for this event, and it cheers him heartily. With so many candidates crisscrossing the state from small town to small town, that’s saying something.
Christie’s performance in New Hampshire, now and in the coming months, will do a lot to determine his political future. And it’s the sort of state where he has the potential to perform. New Hampshire, which hosts the first primary of the presidential season, delights in surprising the nation. It helps that independents are allowed to vote in the primary. In 2008, New Hampshire voters produced two upset victors: Hillary Clinton came from behind to knock off then-senator Barack Obama, and John McCain toppled the presumed Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney.
McCain’s victory in particular was the product of a carefully engineered political rebound. By July of 2007, the senator, once considered the party’s front-runner, had tumbled to fourth place in national polls, behind even former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. The immigration legislation he had backed in the Senate had imploded. Anemic fundraising and staff infighting led to the layoffs and resignations of nearly half his campaign staff. Somebody predicted his presidential aspirations would end with him driving the Straight Talk Express himself.
McCain was, in the words of his own campaign, “living off the land,” and focused single-mindedly on campaigning in New Hampshire. Though he was heavily outspent, he compensated by connecting with voters, riding his Straight Talk Express to every nook and cranny of the state to persuade, cajole, and charm them. The coalition he assembled to win the state is one the Christie team is surely aware of. McCain actually lost among Republican voters in New Hampshire, who went for Romney by a point, 35 to 34 percent. His victory came at the hands of independents, whose votes he won by a 13-point margin, 40 to 27 percent.
Chris Christie has a long road ahead, but it’s one that has been traversed before.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.