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Christie’s Quest: Will He Beat the Odds or Quickly Become the Odd Man Out?

Governor plans to ‘tell it like it is’ in New Hampshire– but harsh truth about record in NJ could end longshot bid in short order

carl golden
Carl Golden

On paper at least, Gov. Chris Christie’s pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination seems the epitome of a fool’s errand.

Even as he campaigned while officially undeclared, he never rose above fifth place in poll after poll and often fell further behind, fighting unsuccessfully to reach double digits while sharing space with others whose candidacies qualified them as also-rans.

He’s perilously close to missing the cut for participation in the first GOP candidates debate in early August.

In terms of likeability, Christie exceeds only Donald Trump, whose candidacy is little more than an outrageously entertaining and bizarre sideshow, while a clear majority expressed their displeasure with the New Jersey governor, by saying they could never bring themselves to vote for him.

His favorability and job-performance ratings in New Jersey are mired in the low 30s --- below even that of former Gov. Jon Corzine when Christie defeated him in 2009 --- and a majority feel Christie would not make a very good president.

Halfway through his sixth year in office, the state has not recovered from the economic downturn and job losses it experienced in the 2008 recession; property taxes are at an all-time high and lead the nation; the state’s credit rating has been downgraded a record nine times; the public pension system is the third-most underfunded in the country, and its transportation infrastructure crumbles daily.

The state has been teetering on the ragged edge of becoming a fiscal basket case for nearly his entire term.

And yet…and yet, he’s eager to take his case to the nation and stack his record against the early frontrunners.

He’s shoved his entire stack of chips into the center of the table --- otherwise known as New Hampshire --- in the belief that Republican voters there will respond positively and in significant numbers to his campaign’s “tell it like it is” mantra.

He, his consultants and advisers are convinced that his outspoken persona and combative style will resonate in a small state like New Hampshire, where one-on-one interactions --- the kind perfected by Christie in his “town hall” forums in New Jersey --- are valued highly by voters.

His “tell it like it is” slogan reflects the reputation he’s achieved and is a not-so-subtle inference that his opponents lack the will and the courage to stand before the American people and talk in something other than generalities about their vision and where they stand on the complex issues facing a president.

Christie’s already attacked Sen. Rand Paul, accusing the Kentucky senator of placing the nation in great peril by opposing the government’s program of massive collection of personal data. He has suggested that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was guilty of plagiarism for glomming onto some of Christie’s ideas for economic growth.

And he has taken a decided lurch to the right, even when it left him open to charges of flip-flopping on issues like the Common Core educational standards and gun-ownership rights.

Like several others in the race, Christie’s foreign policy credentials are thin, consisting pretty much of a pledge that if Russia’s President Putin wises off to him he’ll punch him in the nose. As for other world leaders who might speak against United States interests or policies, Christie will tell them to sit down and shut up.

He’ll remind voters that he was elected twice in a Democratic state, although his first victory in 2009 was against a deeply unpopular incumbent and his re-election win in 2013 was over a candidate who not only lacked money but was openly abandoned by the leadership of her own party, several of whom cut side deals with Christie to support him.

It should be noted that Republican governors of New Jersey are not all that uncommon. Of the last six chief executives, three were Republican (including Christie) and two -- Tom Kean and Christie Whitman -- were re-elected while two Democrats -- Jim Florio and Corzine -- were turned out of office after one term, and one ---- Jim McGreevey --- resigned midway through his first term.

He’ll tout his record of reaching compromises with a Democrat-controlled Legislature on issues like pension system reform, imposing a cap on property tax rate increases, and modernization of teacher tenure regulations.

At the same time, his battles with public employee unions will be a major element in his campaign pitch, portraying him as someone willing to stand up to the demands of private interests and win the day.

With the influence of the Iowa caucuses diminished significantly, New Hampshire has become even more crucial. It is the first head-to-head confrontation in which voters can express their preference at the ballot box and, fairly or not, propel the winner into the lead heading into the heavy primary season.

For Christie, the stakes in New Hampshire are exceedingly high. He’s essentially placed his future in the hands of voters there, and a strong showing would demonstrate his viability and competitiveness while validating his damn the torpedoes (and polls), it’s full speed ahead.

Finishing below sixth place, however, would be a devastating blow, damaging his ability to raise the millions in campaign cash needed to remain in the race and potentially forcing a reassessment of his candidacy.

Falling into the second tier group of candidates will lead inevitably to his being written off, relegated to the last few paragraphs of print coverage and the tail end of broadcast time. Bloggers and cable television talking heads will refer to him in the past tense and speculate on when he’ll decide to throw in the towel.

Time --- the New Hampshire primary is seven months off --- and the crowded field, with possibly as many as 15 candidates, will work to Christie’s advantage.

A good deal can change from this point forward; some candidates will commit gaffes, stumble, or become caught up in scandal, and the momentum will shift away from some and toward others.

A relatively small bloc of voters splitting their support among so many candidates produces a narrow margin of error within which to work. Achieving what would normally be considered a small percentage of the vote may be sufficient to breathe life into anyone’s campaign.

Four years ago, when Christie was under immense pressure to enter the race despite only having been governor for two years, he demurred, saying he wasn’t ready for the task.

Now that he’s concluded he is -- combat ready, as he recently referred to his mindset -- the residents of New Hampshire will decide whether a governor with a sharp tongue and equally sharp elbows is just what the nation needs…or whether he’s embarked on a fool’s errand.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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