Londonderry, NH — Brenda Birdsall walked into the modest hall of the local Lions Club and found it transformed into a modern stage show – a wall-to-ceiling American flag, huge lights shining down onto chairs configured in concentric circles, and a printed banner that read, simply, “TELL IT LIKE IT IS.”
There, in the center of the room with a wireless microphone, was Gov. Chris Christie, who was holding his first ever town hall meeting outside of New Jersey. Birdsall had heard about him. She liked him. But as the event began Wednesday afternoon she was decidedly undecided about who she would support in the 2016 election.
Then Christie answered questions on Iran, college tuition, campaign finance, Social Security, Medicare, defense spending, the Veterans Administration and more. Some of those answers were quite specific, some were artful dodges, some were funny. None yielded the kind of tense, awkward confrontations that have marked the most recent of his 134 town hall meetings back home in New Jersey. And all of the answers seemed to resonate.
When Birdsall left, her mind was made up. She wanted to see a President Christie in the Oval Office.
“Usually I feel like politicians, I hate to say it, are used car salesmen,” she said. “But he seemed to be spot on with the answers. And he seemed to be a doer, not a talker.”
For Christie, who is expected to make a series of policy speeches in the coming months before announcing his candidacy in June, this is phenomenal news. After posting poor poll numbers in all the early presidential primary states, particularly this one, and after absorbing more than a year of stories about scandals and job performance in New Jersey, Birdsall’s comments were reflective of an overwhelmingly positive two-day swing to New Hampshire. And it indicates that he just may be able to ride this skill at town hall meetings to political resurrection, as his advisers have long insisted he could.
This was a slightly more restrained Christie. He didn’t burst through a curtain to rock music like he does at town halls at home, and when he spoke he gave a much shorter preamble than he normally does before the question and answer period. As he readied for those questions he handed his suit coat to a staffer. In New Jersey, he tosses it, as if he’s preparing for a brawl.
Asked about college tuition he had the crowd rolling in laughter as he complained about getting a $61,750 bill from Notre Dame, where his daughter attends. And he even offered a policy prescription – that government should mandate cost controls. Asked by the mother of a Marine about national defense, he talked about paying soldiers more, increasing funds for the Air Force and taking a more aggressive stance abroad than the Obama Administration. He said he wouldn’t sign a deal with Iran over muclear facilities, as Obama is preparing to do.
On immigration, he only said that he opposed a policy of self-deportation, as Mitt Romney once proposed, and the construction of a wall along the border. He shied away getting into the weeds on tax policy, but he affirmed his commitment to mandatory vaccinations for children after some controversial remarks about that topic earlier this year.
The issue that brought out the most fire in Christie was about Cuba. He grew passionate talking about how the country is harboring a woman convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in the 1970s. He said President Obama should be “ashamed” for normalizing relations with the country.
“Cuba wants normalized relations with the U.S.?” he asked. “Start acting like a normal country. Start acting like a civil country.”
He bookended the town hall with stories about his mother, who “taught me how precious honesty was.” He told the story of his mother on her death bed — one that long closed his town hall meetings in New Jersey. And that surprised several in the audience who were expecting the bombastic YouTube star.
“Boy he brought out some emotion in people,” said Paul Clark, a retiree. “He had a lot of people in tears talking about his mother. I didn’t expect that kind of ending, but it sure moved people.”
In less than 10 months, Christie will find out if he can move enough people to the polls — in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary in the nation, and then beyond.