NASHUA, NH – I met military veteran John Sullivant and his daughter, Pamela Aughey, on Saturday morning at a town hall meeting with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Aughey told me she was a proud and committed Carly Fiorina supporter. Sullivant was undecided — he was mostly there because Aughey wanted to ask Bush about a bureaucratic nightmare in which the Department of Veterans Affairs mistakenly declared Sullivant dead and cancelled his benefits.
Father and daughter agreed on one thing: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did not have the temperament or personality to either win today’s New Hampshire Primary or be president of the United States.
“He’s pretty abrupt,” Sullivant told me. “I don’t think New Hampshire likes bullies.”
“I don’t know if he’s a bully or not, but he’s a little rough around the edges,” Aughey said. She cited how Christie snapped at a woman a couple of weeks ago who asked him why he had left New Jersey as parts of the state were flooding. (“What do you want me to do, bring a mop?” Christie had asked.)
“You don’t talk to people like that.”
Nonetheless, on Monday night, in a snowstorm, Aughey brought her dad to a Christie town hall meeting. They sat in the front row. She asked her question about the VA.
This was Christie’s 72nd and final town hall meeting in New Hampshire, where his presidential dreams will live or die tonight. One Christie staffer who has seen every town hall said it was the best of the entire campaign. At the end, during an extended recitation of a story he has told countless times — about his mother’s last words to him on her death bed — I counted five people, including a Christie relative, crying.
“I’m going to be president of the United States,” Christie told the crowd of several hundred inside the Greek Orthodox church in Manchester. As they stood to applaud, Christie’s campaign deejay cranked up The Heavy’s “How you like me now?”
Afterward I walked out in the snow and ran into Aughey and Sullivant — and learned that they had suddenly both become enthusiastic Christie voters. And it wasn’t just because Christie gave them what they thought was a perfect answer to their VA question.
“The way he answered all questions in total detail and total honesty…he just brought us around,” Sullivant said.
“I connected with Christie like I have with no other political candidate in my life,” Aughey said. “He made me laugh, he made me cry. We had some serious conversations in there — he spent 10 minutes on my question, and looked at me in the eye the whole time.”
She still disagreed with his “mop” remark, but in the story he told about his mother, he explained his abrasive personality. “That told us the character of the person, that’s what we were looking for,” said Sullivant, who choked up as he recounted the moment.
“I felt like I was talking to my father,” Aughey said. “I felt that much of a connection with this man. And this is crazy! Like, the fact that I’m saying this right now — I’m surprising myself….Hands down: Love this guy.”
If Christie does well in the New Hampshire primary — which would mean a fourth-place finish or better — it will be because he won over thousands of people, just like this father and daughter, at town hall meetings throughout the state.
But that’s a big if. Polls show him stuck in 6th place, a finish that would likely end his campaign.
The reasons for his dismal showing so far are myriad. First there’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose super PAC’s televised attacks are most responsible for stopping the momentum in the polls Christie had started to pick up in December.
Christie returned fire at the Republican presidential debate Saturday night, interrupting Rubio to accuse him of being too scripted. That became the debate’s marquee moment, and it may have scrambled the race by hurting Rubio –and, perhaps, helping Christie.
But after a Rubio town hall on Sunday, the day after the debate, I watched as a canvasser asked a retired couple if they were voting for Rubio.
No, they said. So I asked why.
“It’s sort of like what Christie was saying last night,” Rene LeMontagne, 68, said. “Rubio seems more robotic.”
Yet Rene and his wife, Patricia, say they are voting for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — not Christie. “I think he’d be a little too quick tempered to be president,” Patricia said of Christie. “You have to think things out. You can’t act irrationally.”
By attacking Rubio, Christie may have acted like a mercenary — helping the other competitors, but not himself.
Although some voters like the tough guy shtick, many of those voters prefer the louder mouth in the race — Donald Trump. Interviews with voters also indicate that Trump hurts Christie in a second way — anti-Trump voters tend to bunch the two of them together as loud New Yorker types who don’t have the disposition to be president. For those voters, Trump makes Christie looks worse.
“We need someone…who can speak with foreign ministers, others, on a rational basis,” said Judy Sigfried, 59. “Not: ‘You’re fired!'”
Unlike Trump and Christie, Bush offers a sense of stability and familiarity to many voters. He espouses a middle-of-the-road message, and talks about his brother and father, two former presidents who remain popular in certain circles here.
Christie has another problem: Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has run a totally different campaign from the other candidates. He offers lots of bipartisan talk and an optimistic outlook for the country, with little mention of war. Parts of his message — particularly about working with Democrats and coming up with centrist solutions — were once Christie’s calling card.
But that’s not voters’ impression of Christie now. In New Hampshire, where a significant number of indepedents and Democrats participate in the GOP primary, Kasich could win enough votes from moderates to beat Christie.
So the New Jersey governor needs to have looked enough people in the eyes at his town hall meetings if he is to tally enough votes to do better than Bush and Kasich. He can survive a thrashing from Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio. But if he doesn’t emerge as the top governor in the field, there will be little money or momentum for him to continue.