In all political campaigns, there are unmistakable indicators that a sense of panic has begun to nibble away at the edges: The strategy -- once thought solid and effective -- abruptly changes, the rhetoric becomes more shrill, the language more strident, the arguments more visceral.
As Gov. Chris Christie’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination inches agonizingly along (one leading pollster even went so far as to predict Christie would soon withdraw from the race), those troublesome signs have emerged.
He’s already abandoned his initial plan to differentiate himself from the others in the field of 17 by offering detailed proposals to deal with entitlement reform, immigration, military preparedness, and education. He’s cast aside his self-portrayal as a strong leader who embraces bipartisanship and compromise in the larger interest of achieving solutions to difficult problems.
Those approaches have failed to move Christie into the top tier of candidates, and he remains mired in the low single digits in poll after poll, nationally and in the early primary states. He’s viewed unfavorably by nearly 60 percent -- a staggering and normally fatal level.
In the past two weeks, Christie has attacked in all directions, blaming President Barack Obama for fostering a culture of lawlessness in the nation, and ripping into New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton -- describing them with his newly favorite word as “liberals” -- for standing idly by while their city became increasingly unsafe.
He ridiculed the statistics that showed the crime rate had actually decreased in New York, arguing that the data could be fudged and read in many different ways.
Bratton quickly returned fire, proclaiming the governor “didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” and suggested that Christie pay more attention to cleaning up the mean streets of Newark, Camden, and Trenton, for instance, before shooting his mouth off about how New York was dealing with crime.
He’s made the media a favorite target as well, employing the cliché “liberal press” at every opportunity -- at one point describing newspapers as “rags” -- and suggesting that people should quit reading them.
In one of his more eye-popping comments, he told an audience in New Hampshire that the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution is “alive” in New Jersey solely because he’s been governor for the past six years. He didn’t explain just how the Democratically controlled state Legislature could amend the Constitution and delete the right to bear arms amendment, only that he stood resolutely in the way because of his commitment to gun ownership.
The “law and order” theme has been a staple in political campaigns for years, and Christie has tied it to his service as United States Attorney, pointing out repeatedly that he’s the only candidate in the field with law enforcement experience and background and thus more able to understand what’s necessary to fulfill the most fundamental responsibility of government -- the safety and security of its people.
As New Jersey’s Federal prosecutor, though, he built his reputation on aggressively pursuing public corruption, eventually convicting or extracting guilty pleas from some 130 public officials. The urban street crime normally associated with calls for “law and order” is dealt with largely by local police forces rather than federal authorities.
While Christie’s criticism of the news media reaches back to his early days in office, he’s become visibly more annoyed and angered at persistent questions concerning developments related to the Bridgegate scandal and whether his governing style created a culture in which punishing political foes was encouraged and celebrated.
The resignations of the CEO and two top officers of United Airlines in the midst of a federal investigation into possible misconduct involving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey forced Christie to defend David Samson, his choice as authority chairman, from allegations that Samson, a long time personal and political friend, had acted improperly.
The abrupt shift in strategy is a clear concession that the campaign is floundering, that Christie’s candidacy has failed to ignite excitement or favorable reactions, and that desperation is peeking over the horizon.
It’s unlikely that caucus-goers in Iowa or voters in New Hampshire, as well as the other early-primary states, will be impressed by Christie’s attacks on the mayor and police commissioner of New York. Characterizing newspapers as “rags” and urging people to stop reading them won’t carry much weight, either.
Mired at between two percent and three percent in the polls, Christie barely squeezed into the first candidates’ debate last month, as well as Wednesday night’s forum in California.
He’s hinted that he intends to be more aggressive in the debate, gambling that his new strategy will result in the upward bump he sought but failed to win in the most recent one.
It’s doubtful that on a stage with 10 others, he’ll succeed in out-blustering Donald Trump or in being more soft-spoken than Dr. Ben Carson -- the two polling leaders.
Should he emerge from the confrontation with the same two percent to three percent he held going in, the next and louder sound will be panic chomping at the edges rather than merely nibbling.