SOMERSWORTH, N.H. -- Chris Christie was experiencing a rare good week for his 2016 presidential campaign. A video of him talking personally and passionately about the demons of addiction went viral, shining a new, much-needed spotlight on his presidential efforts and had people talking about him and his message. Then, late on Thursday, the New Jersey governor received unwelcome news that could put an abrupt halt to the momentum: he would not make the main debate stage for next week’s GOP debate.
Christie’s campaign has been struggling in a political environment that is favoring the least experienced politicians and more conservative rhetoric and the straight-talking governor who’s staked his claim on an ability to win in a Democratic state hasn’t caught on with GOP primary voters.
In national polls, Christie’s support sits at about two percent. While he is doing slightly better in New Hampshire polls, hovering at 4.5 percent according to an average of state polls by Real Clear Politics, he has a long way to climb to the top of the crowded field with voters who currently embrace real estate mogul Donald Trump and former pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
But his prospects in the Granite State appeared to brighten a little. Just a day after The New York Times editorial board wrote that Christie should drop out of the race last week, the Huffington Post posted a video of Christie giving a heartfelt speech at a townhall in New Hampshire about his mother's lung cancer and a friend who became addicted to prescription drugs.
“The sixteen year old teenage girl on the floor of the county lockup addicted to heroin, I’m pro-life for her too. Her life is just as much a precious gift from God as the one in the womb,” Christie was shown saying in the video. “We need to start thinking that way as a party and as a people.”
While Christie has long discussed the issue of drug addiction and treatment, having held six forums on the issue, now he has made addiction central to his campaign since the release of that video.
It’s been a political boon for the New Jersey governor.
At Kelley’s Row Restaurant and Bar Friday morning, Christie said he’s “felt such great momentum” in New Hampshire recently. “I’m really excited about what’s happening in the campaign in the last couple of weeks,” he said. “More people are coming out to listen; more people signing up to support.”
Christie’s focus on addiction has been well-received in the New Hampshire where heroin and opiate addiction is at epidemic levels.
The former mayor of Somersworth, Matt Spencer, who introduced Christie Friday morning said his commitment to addiction treatment is the reason he is supporting Christie.
Christie’s campaign has leveraged the video carefully. Not wanting to look like he is using the issue for political expediency, Christie is not fundraising off of it. Instead they are promoting it socially to garner attention from and interaction with voters and sent an email to supporters asking not for money but for people to share the video. The campaign even ran an ad on the issue in New Hampshire in a small ad buy.
He talks about the video at each campaign stop and notes the rising number of views, which as of Friday morning is at nearly 6.5 million.
“It doesn’t tell something about me necessarily. It tells us something about the nature and the depth of this problem, that people are that concerned,” Christie said at a roundtable with ambulatory care workers and law enforcement Thursday night in Somersworth.
Christie proposes making treatment for non-violent drug users mandatory treatment, an expansion of a program he implemented in New Jersey.
At his town hall Friday morning, nearly half of the questions he received from the audience directly or indirectly related to addiction.
Sipping on coffee at 8 a.m. Friday, Patty Derochemont told NBC News that the narcotics issue “hit kinda close to home.”
“There’s that emotional pull to go to that Christie town hall,” Derochemont said after seeing the video. “It was good to hear somebody speak honestly about it – that it’s not a quick fix. ”
Even Bill Burton, a former spokesman for President Barack Obama posted on Christie’s Facebook page that Christie’s “perceived authenticity is the reason he will have his moment to rise at some point in this race.”
That wasn’t the only evidence of Christie’s momentum. The latest New Hampshire by WBUR poll only shows good things for Christie. He improved in every measure since the last WBUR poll was taken in September. His unfavorable ratings improved – from 39 percent in September to 31 percent now. Seven percent of people said they would vote for him compared to just 2 percent two months ago.
But Christie’s failure to garner 2.5 percent support in the average of the last four national polls is a huge blow to what seemed like an upward trajectory.
The Christie campaign spun the news as a benefit. He would get more time to talk in the so-called undercard debate that hosts fewer candidates. (Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum are the other candidates.) He’ll also get to talk about substantive issues and not be pulled into insignificant discussion about inconsequential topics, they say.
“Whether it's the folks I’ve been debating with before or some other folks, I don’t really care in one respect. Put a podium on the lawn in front of the folidige and lets get a few people out and I'll debate them here,” Christie told NBC News.
But still, a good debate has had tangential impacts. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has seen a bump in the polls. Even in the New Hampshire poll, respondents thought Christie had a very good debate performance – and his poll numbers rose. The undercard debate receives much less attention and fewer viewers.
At Christie’s town hall Friday, Margo Sweeney said it’s “disappointing” that Christie won’t make the stage. “I hope he sticks it out.”