WEARE, N.H. -- As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie paces in front of the numerous town halls his presidential campaign holds across New Hampshire, he looks prospective voters straight in the eye and makes his point clear: For the country – but also for him – the stakes in this first-in-the-nation primary state couldn’t be higher.
“It’s game time,” he declares for his audiences in dramatic fashion. “The TV show is over. Entertainment time is over. It’s now time to decide who is the person to sit behind that desk.”
“You’re it,” he states. “America is counting on you. See, you and Iowa. You all get to take this field from 14 probably down to 4 or 5, and it’s happening in 7 weeks.”
Christie is embarking on a three and a half day bus tour through New Hampshire this weekend, returning once again to the state where he’s devoted considerable time and banked his presidential hopes.
Less than two months before this state’s critical first-in-the-nation primary, the Republican candidate still has serious ground to gain if he wants to claim victory, and he’s looking to capitalize on a string of recent local support in a way that some of his predecessors in past primaries could not.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Christie received a high-profile endorsement from the New Hampshire Union-Leader, the state’s largest newspaper with an influential editorial board.
Within the span of a few days, he announced the support of well-known New Hampshire Republican activists Dan and Renee Plummer, former New Hampshire Speaker of the House Donna Sytek, former New Hampshire Congressman Bill Zeliff, and more. A week later, Christie nabbed the support of State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a key local figure multiple other candidates were courting.
Sytek told NBC News she was also considering Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Carly Fiorina, but ultimately picked Christie for his focus on addiction, reforming social security, the national debt. “I like Christie,” she said. “He's right on the issues I care about and has a wonderful way of being plain spoken and not simplistic.”
“Everybody was competing for these endorsements and we are the ones who got them,” Christie told NBC News on the last day of November as he spoke to reporters while announcing the support of local law enforcement leaders. “These are all important because they are a validation to the people of New Hampshire from the folks that they respect and know, that these folks believe that I’m the best person to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States. But in the end, I gotta close the sale. It’s my job.”
The Numbers Game
Though circulation of the Union-Leader has dropped in recent years along with newspaper circulation nation-wide, the endorsement naturally came with an uptick in positive national media coverage, with some declaring a “comeback” moment for Christie. “Momentum. He has it,” Bradley declared while introducing him at a recent town hall in Wolfeboro, predicting that the race for the Republican presidential nomination will ultimately come down to Christie and Donald Trump.
The numbers do indicate a shift, but there’s still substantial room to improve. The most recent Real Clear Politics Average of polls has Christie in 3rd place in New Hampshire at 10.7 points, behind Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, but essentially doubling his position from a month ago. Perhaps more importantly for Christie, his favorability ratings have improved – he’s at 64 percent favorable, 30 percent unfavorable in the most recent Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce poll, up from 49 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable in August.
Historically, candidates have gotten a bump after receiving the Union-Leader endorsement but it hasn’t always proven enough for candidates to win the state. The paper backed Newt Gingrich in 2012 and he went on to finish in fourth place, behind Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman. The Union-Leader news added some life to John McCain’s 2008 campaign, but didn’t bode as well for candidates like Steve Forbes and Pete du Pont when they got the nod in earlier elections.
Christie’s intense time focus on New Hampshire surpasses almost all of the other 2016 Republican candidates, except Sen. Lindsey Graham. He has logged more than 50 days in the state this year with 38 town halls under his belt.
However, he has one of the smallest full-time teams here, with currently only four paid staffers, which is minimal compared to some of his more similar rivals. Marco Rubio currently has a team of seven, John Kasich with a team of 11, and Jeb Bush now employs 20. Christie’s campaign points instead to a base of volunteers taking on many campaign duties.
After Paris and San Bernardino, invoking 9/11
At restaurants, bars, and community centers across the state for the last several months, Christie has been spending more than two hours at a time using his famous charisma to both crack jokes with the audience, and, more recently, speak solemnly about the national security risks he sees. Since the attacks in Paris, he sharpened his focus squarely on terrorism and intently recalls the hour-by-hour panic he felt on September 11, 2001.
“Take yourselves back to 9/11,” he says to crowds, like the recent one at a fire house in Loudon, standing in front of bright red fire trucks, firefighter suits on the wall, and a poster remembering the 2001 tragedy. “The American people found themselves at risk. We had been attacked… the attacks in Paris remind us of what’s at stake.”
Telling his 9/11 story in Wolfeboro, he invoked “the soot and the grime and the death of lower Manhattan.” He recounted the fear he felt that day before he heard from his wife, who was near the World Trade Center, and the sadness in ultimately learning of the death of a friend. When he told the story at a recent town hall in Stratham, multiple attendees found themselves in tears.
After recalling 2001 at a town hall in Weare, Christie brought the attendees back to the present, referencing the attacks in San Bernardino, California. “If a center for the developmentally disabled is a target for terrorists, then every place is a target for terrorists,” he said.
New Jersey in New Hampshire
Across New Hampshire, residents see a more calm and measured Christie than the one depicted in some snappy soundbites over the last few years, when he became known for his bluntness with lines like, “Get the hell off the beach!” or “Sit down and shut up.” That Christie is largely absent on the campaign trail.
But a bit of his old school demeanor shined through in one moment during a recent press conference when he called the president of the New Jersey police union a “pension pig.”
After receiving the endorsements of local law enforcement leaders in New Hampshire, Christie was asked why the head of the New Jersey State PBA is a vocal opponent, and quickly responded, “He is a pension pig. That’s what he’s always been about. It’s about feeding at the trough as much as he possibly can. That’s what they’ve always been about.” The union president quickly lashed back, calling Christie “a man who has proven time and again he will say and do whatever it takes to claw his way to the next political position.”
The George Washington Bridge lane closure story that dogged Christie’s administration over the last two years rarely comes up while he campaigns in New Hampshire, but the story does remain active as trials for two of his former allies, Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, were pushed back to at least April, well after New Hampshire and other early states will cast their primary ballots. A panel of New Jersey lawmakers investigating the scandal last year found no evidence the governor himself was aware of the plot.
Until now, Christie hasn’t been a clear public target among many of his rivals in New Hampshire, and hasn’t had to sustain many attacks from the other candidates yet, though a new ad from the Super PAC supporting John Kasich, New Day For America, recently poked at New Jersey’s $10.2 billion structural deficit.
Through the heat of the summer and the foliage of New England’s fall, Christie worked at retail politics and introduced himself to strangers at places like the Portsmouth Seafood Festival, Manchester’s Puritan Backroom Restaurant, and a NASCAR race in Loudon.
Christie’s team plans to keep building on the support they have by continuing to do it how they have been -- the “New Hampshire way” -- in courting voters one-by-one in town hall settings and by greeting residents where they already are. It worked for John McCain eight years ago, after the Arizona senator earned the Union-Leader endorsement. But this year Donald Trump stands in the way of everyone else, and Christie and much of his competition in the more “establishment” lane are splitting the non-Trump support.
“People have been asking me all along, ‘you’ve been working really hard up here, when is all that hard work going to pay off?’” Christie told reporters recently. “I think you’re starting to see it pay off. You know, the hardest thing about this race for any of us is to be patient. I’ve worked hard at being patient in this race.”