Politics & Policy

New Hampshire Deals Death Blow to Christie Campaign

Christie speaks at a town hall in Timberland, N.H., February 5, 2016. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Nashua, N.H. — “Four years ago, people wanted me to run for president. I said no,” Chris Christie told a crowd of employees at DYN, a tech company based in Manchester, 30 hours before polls closed in the state’s primary. “The reason I said no is ‘cause I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to be president. I knew I wasn’t ready. I’d been governor for a year and a half; I wasn’t ready to be President of the United States.”

“But I’m ready now.”

Timing can be everything in politics. And for Christie, the timing was never quite right.

The New Jersey governor’s presidential hopes were vanquished Tuesday night here in New Hampshire, the state on which he’d staked his campaign: He came in sixth place, failing to earn a single delegate, and while he did not officially suspend his campaign, he made clear it was unlikely to continue unless the results changed after all the votes had been counted.

“Mary Pat and I spoke tonight and we decided we’re going to go home to New Jersey tomorrow. And we’re going to take a deep breath, and see what the final results are,” a subdued and evidently saddened Christie told a crowd assembled in the ballroom of the Radisson Hotel. He had been scheduled to fly to South Carolina in the morning.

“We leave New Hampshire tonight without an ounce of regret,” he added.

But Christie’s tale is very much a story of what could have been. When he won overwhelming re-election as the Republican governor of a blue state in 2013, he was heralded as perhaps the top contender for the nomination. The win, wrote the New York Times, “vaulted him to the front ranks of Republican presidential contenders and made him his party’s foremost proponent of pragmatism over ideology.”

Just over two years later, Christie is poised to exit the race with little to show for it. His most lasting impact on the Republican party may turn out to be halting Marco Rubio, who seemed like he could become the front-runner before withering in the face of Christie’s attacks at Saturday night’s debate.

Christie’s eleventh-hour anti-Rubio onslaught made clear that he can pack a punch when he so chooses. He left Rubio bloodied and evidently off balance. Last week, New Hampshire polls had Rubio in second place, coming off a strong finish in Iowa. On Tuesday night, the Florida senator finished fifth, just a few percentage points ahead of Christie.

The question is why Christie didn’t do it sooner. “I’ll engage at a time and place of my choosing,” Christie told the crowd at DYN on Monday, when asked whether his attacks had come too late to make a difference. The time and place of his choosing only accomplished half of what he’d hoped they would: Christie brought down Rubio, but he failed to rise in the senator’s place.

Christie’s demise was partly due to self-inflicted wounds, and partly due to a field of candidates that unfolded in ways no one expected.

“It’s just the strangest cycle that anybody’s ever seen,” one Christie advisor says after the disappointing results. “And so it was hard to deal with all that uncertainty.”

#share#Yet Christie did almost everything as a candidate is supposed to in New Hampshire. Over the past few years, Christie loyalists had made their way into a number of New Hampshire campaigns and the state GOP. He made 38 visits to the state, and did 190 campaign stops, according to NECN’s candidate tracker. When he announced his campaign at home in New Jersey, it felt like a mere formality: within hours, he’d arrived at a New Hampshire town hall to kick things off in earnest. 

Christie’s demise was partly due to self-inflicted wounds, and partly due to a field of candidates that unfolded in ways no one expected.

And in his classic brash style, Christie set out not just to win over voters but to woo them. About 24 hours before polls opened in most of New Hampshire, he got down on one knee to court a woman who declared herself an undecided voter at a town hall in Hudson. Hours later, he threatened to “climb over” a row of people, including Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro, to appeal to an undecided woman sitting in the second row on a riser at a town hall in Hampstead. (“Buddy may be in significant trouble in about fifteen seconds,” cracked Christie, who lost a significant amount of weight in preparation for his presidential bid).

“I want to always be able to say that the people of New Hampshire met me, got to see me, that I opened my heart to them, they opened their heart to me, and we made history together,” he told a crowd of about 300 as he concluded his final town hall in Manchester.

Unfortunately for Christie, this was not to be a love story.

“Sometimes the dog just won’t eat the dog food. I’m not saying that Christie is dog food, but every cycle there are candidates who are credible and have a good record and have electoral success and the voters just don’t go for them, and I think Christie might fall into that category this cycle,” says former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, who backed John Kasich.

Trump, to be sure, was a big factor. Suddenly, the role of tough-talking guy from the tri-state area was taken. First place, too, was mopped up early on, which left Christie fighting with John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio for the center-right vote. While Kasich and Bush seemed to carve out specific niches for themselves within that demographic, Christie got stuck in no-man’s land.

“Christie is a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll, and so people look at him and go, ‘Yeah . . . maybe,’” says Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank based in New Hampshire.

To make matters worse, Christie had to contend with tarnished image from the start. In between being dubbed the anointed one in 2013 and actually jumping into the race in 2015, he came under scrutiny for his role in shutting down several lanes of the George Washington Bridge, in what appeared to be retaliation against a local mayor who had refused to endorse him for re-election. Christie was never found to be directly at fault in the incident, but it ruined the perception that he was someone who could compromise and work across party lines, so much so that some other presidential campaigns remained relatively unconcerned about him until the end. Voters might like him and entertain supporting him, rival staffers reasoned, but ultimately they would go for someone they believed could be president — and Bridgegate removed him from that conversation.

In the final weeks here, Christie faced a barrage of attack ads from the super PAC backing Marco Rubio, which blasted the governor as, among other things, Obama’s favorite Republican. The governor’s favorability rating in the state sank as a result, and by the time he hit back last week, the damage was done: Though he was able to put Rubio on his heels and knock him off his game, the incident became entirely about Rubio’s failings, as opposed to Christie’s strengths.

“It wasn’t about Christie,” says Cullen, noting that when footage of the incident was replayed ad nauseam on television and the internet, it showed only Rubio’s robot-like repetition of the same line over and over again. “He was almost like a bystander in somebody else’s self-inflicted wound.”

#related#With 88 percent of precincts reporting, Christie remained in sixth place, at just 7.5 percent of the vote. Unless something changes, he will not earn a spot on the debate stage in Greenville Saturday. And with many Republicans hoping to winnow the field to make it easier to take on Trump as the race moves forward, Christie will be under huge amounts of pressure to bow out. It would be nearly impossible for him to justify continuing his campaign after such a poor showing in the state where he devoted almost all of his campaign’s time and resources.

“Like that great political philosopher Mike Tyson said: ‘everybody’s got a plan ‘til you get punched in the face,’” Christie joked at his final town hall in Manchester Monday night.

Twenty-four hours later, he got punched in the face. It was a knockout blow.

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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