Gov. Chris Christie was not being subtle about his political plans as he glad-handed his way through T-Bones restaurant in a strip mall in Bedford, N.H., last Friday.
“You don’t know me?” he asked a woman who joked that she didn’t recognize him. “We’re in New Hampshire, I can’t believe you don’t know me!”
When a man told him he shook hands with Ronald Reagan before he became president, Christie exclaimed: “That’s good karma, baby, that’s good karma, all right!”
And when a woman said she was undecided on the presidential race, he assured her: “That’s all right, we’ll work on that later.”
Christie was ostensibly at T-Bones to promote the New Hampshire gubernatorial candidacy of Walt Havenstein. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is traveling the country doing that sort of campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidates. But only in New Hampshire is he supporting someone who has a primary opponent.
Outside T-Bones, Christie spoke to the press, reminding us that he had visited New Hampshire in 2011, 2012 and 2013. A reporter asked if part of the reason he was in town was to promote himself for president.
“Absolutely not, how dare you!” Christie said sarcastically. But he added, “Fact is, I’ve told everyone around the country, anyone looking forward to 2016 now is being foolish.”
But of course he is looking forward to 2016. He already has operatives in New Hampshire who act as his eyes and his ears.
The electorates in the other key early-voting states — South Carolina and Iowa — are considered more conservative, and may not warm to a moderate like Christie. So his best bet is winning in New Hampshire.
And to do that, he’ll have to stop through the New Hampshire Institute of Politics for a speech or town hall meeting. The prevalence of town hall meetings in New Hampshire should be a strength for Christie — he’s done 122 in New Jersey over the last four years.
Neil Levesque, the executive director of the Institute, says that the Republicans he speaks with are fascinated by the governor. “People say to me, ‘When you have Chris Christie at the Institute of Politics let me know, because I want to meet him,'” Levesque said. “And it’s a lot easier to run for president when people want to meet you and you don’t have to go pry open the doors.”
But once they open that door, New Hampshire voters might not find a Republican to their liking. Some say they want to look at New Jersey’s financial health, which is not so good of late. Christie plans to close a gaping budget hole by skipping pension payments.
And issues that have been a problem for him in blue New Jersey could become a liability among Republicans in New Hampshire – for the opposite reasons.
“From a lot of Republicans, the first thing they’re going to want to know is, ‘Where do you stand on firearms ownership?'” said Brandon Ross, 32, at a meeting of the Manchester Republican Committee last week. “That’s a big issue here.”
The Second Amendment came up often in New Hampshire. The fact that Christie hasn’t allowed any major anti-gun legislation to pass in New Jersey, despite a Democratic Legislature, didn’t score him points.
“If you don’t support the Second Amendment, what else in the Constitution don’t you support?” asked Paul Chauvin, 51. “And I use that as a litmus test, as a guide, to how much someone really respects the Constitution. If they don’t respect the Second Amendment, as far as I’m concerned, they don’t respect the Constitution anywhere else.”
And even though Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill, some said they don’t like the fact that when a judge ultimately approved it, he didn’t fight all the way up to the State Supreme Court.
Then, of course, there’s Bridgegate.
Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire political consultant allied with another potential Republican candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said Christie had been the front-runner.
“They kind of saw him as a national figure who would stand up on principle, and so this bridge scandal really worked to destroy that image,” Dennehy said. “And while there’s been no real findings of wrongdoing it’s the perception that has given people pause — and it’s only given people pause.”
At the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, a favorite of politicos passing through the state, I found that Bridgegate, conversely enough, may become a strength. Voters talked about the investigations into his administration in the past tense, even though they are still going on. Miles Hall, 65, told me the media was hyping the story, which makes Christie more sympathetic, like a more authentic Republican.
“It may be an ironic political advantage — indicate that he’s not riding the coattails of the media around him,” Hall said.
Months ago, Christie was interviewed by Diane Sawyer in a first step toward rehabilitating his image after Bridgegate. On the program, he said folks in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential caucus, love him.
So as he left T-Bones and walked toward his SUV, en route to a Republican fundraiser, I asked Christie if they love him in New Hampshire, too.
“Even more, Matt, even more,” he said.