Christie's Mounting Problems on Display in N.H.
CONCORD, N.H. -- Chris Christie was about halfway through his remarks Monday night at a Concord and Merrimack County GOP fundraising dinner when a server dropped a tray full of plates.
The resulting crash was not of the “no harm, no foul” variety that inspires restaurant patrons to applaud good-naturedly and the culprit to take an impish bow. Instead, it was a glass- and porcelain-shattering detonation, a crash that made one instantly wonder whether a clumsy waiter had just lost his job (along with the dozen or so dinners that were now lying on the floor).
An awkward silence hung in the air for a moment before Christie came to the rescue.
“I had nothing to do with that, I swear,” he joked from the podium. “I think you can tell I was nowhere near the scene.”
The New Jersey governor’s move to lighten the tense moment went over well with the couple hundred local Republican activists and elected officials who had shelled out $50 apiece to catch his first post-midterm appearance in their state.
Then, about 15 minutes later, came the sound of a second, almost equally loud crash from just inside the kitchen doors, as another round of hot meals bit the dust.
“I’m beginning to think it is me,” Christie said.
This time, however, the line got fewer laughs. After all, it’s bad form to kick a guy when he’s down, and Christie has been having a rough go of it lately.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the twice-elected Republican governor from deep-blue New Jersey -- the likely 2016 presidential hopeful who can plausibly lay claim to the title of “most charismatic politician” in the GOP field.
Even after the Bridgegate scandal broke open in January of last year, it looked for a while as if Christie had the ability to remain a top 2016 contender.
As chairman of the Republican Governors Association last year, he raised a record amount of cash and helped the party win 22 of the 36 governor’s races that were up for grabs, capped by unlikely victories in Maryland and Massachusetts.
But Christie’s favorability and approval rating back home have since plummeted to all-time lows amid a vast budget deficit, stubbornly high unemployment and other fiscal woes.
There are also indications that Christie’s standing has likewise fallen outside of his home state in ways that threaten his 2016 campaign-in-waiting before it can even get off the ground.
First, video of his open-mouthed bear hug of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones went viral in January and turned him into an inviting target for the social media masses, many of whom wouldn’t be paying attention to presidential politics at this point if not for the opportunity to throw spitballs.
Then Christie took a trip to London that was intended to bolster his stature as an international statesman but instead left him looking more like Mr. Bean than Churchill when he told reporters parents should have “some measure of choice” in deciding whether to vaccinate their children.
Christie later walked back the remark, but The New York Times piled on that same day with a story highlighting the self-styled regular guy’s penchant for accepting luxury travel, high-end accommodations, and other personal benefits as gifts from powerful people with interests in his governance.
The most vexing -- and consequential -- news of all in the context of Christie’s White House hopes has been the extent to which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has appeared to box him out on the money front, particularly in the tri-state area around New York City, which was supposed to serve as the New Jersey governor’s big-donor wheelhouse.
Bush’s relentless and, by all accounts, wildly successful early fundraising push has been Topic A the last few weeks among plugged-in Republicans, many of whom are now wondering whether the boisterous New Jerseyan has the legs to remain a viable contender.
Christie’s public appearance in New Hampshire on Monday likely did little to assuage those doubts.
It’s not that his speech was a disaster -- far from it.
Christie drew a sizable crowd of the fiscally conservative, suit-and-tie-clad Republicans who would figure to form his base here, and they rose to their feet at both ends of his remarks.
And his private roundtable meeting earlier in the day with two-dozen local business leaders in the GOP-heavy town of Bedford appears to have gone well.
“I think I expected him to have reflected that tough [recent] press a little bit more in person than he did,” said Ellen Christo, a tuned-in state Republican activist and fundraiser, who attended the event. “I’m impressed with his vision of where he wants to take the country. I think a lot of the things he’s been beaten up on lately in the long run don’t amount to much.”
Christo may well be correct in her assessment that the recent negative headlines will be faint memories a year from now. There is long history of presidential hopefuls who have been written off for dead in New Hampshire only to regroup and reemerge the victor in the first-in-the-nation primary.
But a fair reading of Christie’s appearance in Concord raised more questions about his chances here than it answered.
The two-term governor has always traded on his gifts as a communicator, yet his speech Monday night was surprisingly subdued and often felt humdrum in comparison to many of his previous keynoting opportunities.
Though the crowd applauded a couple of times and stood at the moments when custom and consideration called for it, there was little energy in the air.
And at times, Christie appeared to be reaching.
He seemed particularly intent on reminding the crowd that he had visited the state often during the 2014 midterms on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein.
That Christie is not a Granite State newbie indeed might be a feather in his cap, but in a place where presidential aspirants are about as common as ski instructors, his repeated references to his travel log seemed a bit forced.
First, he pointed to the familiar faces in the crowd, noting how great it was to see New Hampshire GOP Chair Jennifer Horn “after being here many times before.”
Then, after a nice moment in which he asked the military veterans in the room to stand and be recognized, Christie was back at it.
“I was here,” he said, furrowing his brow as if struggling to recall all of the times he had gone out of his way to grace the state with his presence, “I think half a dozen times last year.”
Next, he sang the praises of Havenstein -- who lost to incumbent Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan by a closer than expected five-point margin -- but then managed to find a third opportunity to remind the crowd that, yes, he had been to New Hampshire before.
“I was up here a lot,” Christie said.
In another indication that foreign policy may play a more prominent role in the 2016 Republican nominating fight than it typically does, the likely candidate next devoted a significant portion of his remarks to international affairs.
He was emphatic in his criticism of President Obama’s leadership on the world stage, even as he characterized himself as a “direct, sometimes argumentative and fighting person from New Jersey.”
“There’s only one Chris Christie, everybody,” he added.
No one would doubt that claim.
But for a man who has in the past shown an ability to light a room on fire with his rhetoric, it was notable how this brief indulgence speaking about himself in the third person did not generate much of a reaction.
Still, it is important not to read too much into a single speech.
Christie and his experienced team of advisers know full well that New Hampshire voters are a discerning and late-deciding lot, who tend to be more impressed by substance than sound-bite-ready gimmicks that sometimes work more readily elsewhere.
And Christie’s allies here in his must-win early-voting state believe he has plenty of time to recover his standing -- a position that has not fallen as dramatically as conventional wisdom holds, if the numbers are to be believed.
He is still polling in the double digits in a deeply fractured field of GOP contenders -- well within striking range of the lead in a race that figures to feature more turns than a Jersey Shore boardwalk ride.
But even before Christie began addressing the crowd on Monday, there were signs that some of his problems in New Hampshire may be fundamental.
During his lengthy walk from the back of the ballroom up to the stage, Christie paused to answer a series of questions from longtime state political reporter John DiStaso about his support for an Internet sales tax in New Jersey.
Christie last year authored and signed a budget that included a provision compelling out-of-state online businesses to remit New Jersey sales tax when an in-state resident makes a purchase.
“I think it’s about a fairness issue now,” Christie said in defense of the tax, adding that the issue should be “up to each individual state.”
A fair and sober assessment perhaps, but this is income- and sales-tax-free New Hampshire -- where attempts to alter that status are about as popular as Hepatitis B.
Christie’s support for an Internet tax back home puts him even to the left of New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen on the issue -- not an ideal starting point in a state where “Live Free or Die” isn’t just a throwaway slogan.
Still, the philosophical and temperamental composition of the New Hampshire GOP electorate figures to be a solid fit for a fellow northeastern Republican like Christie, and there will be plenty of unaffiliated voters casting ballots here next February whose ideology should be in keeping with his.
But another red flag for Christie’s chances was on display here during Monday’s address when his wavering position on the Common Core educational standards was highlighted.
As recently as 2013, Christie had publicly offered his full-throated support for Common Core.
But as opposition to the testing standards has become a rallying cry for conservative activists here and around the country, Christie has begun to waver.
In Iowa last month, Christie said that he now has “grave concerns” about Common Core -- a clear contrast to Jeb Bush, who has remained firm in his support for the standards.
Bush’s position may be an unpopular one among Republicans here, but he at least has the opportunity to benefit politically from his consistency. If there is one distinct odor that New Hampshire voters are adept at sniffing out, it is the scent of a presidential hopeful shifting his views to align with the prevailing political winds.
After spending almost an hour on stage in Concord, Christie decided to take one last question from a woman near the front.
He probably wishes he’d wrapped things up sooner.
“Gov. Christie, I want to thank you for your strong support for national education standards and Common Core in the classroom,” the woman said, either mischievously or in earnest. “Now that you have teachers unions in New Jersey and elsewhere attacking higher standards and also trying to avoid testing to measure those results, isn’t now the time to step up for higher standards and accountability?”
The self-described “blunt” and “direct” New Jerseyan took his shot at answering the question indirectly.
“Sure, it absolutely is,” he said. “But let’s be sure that we know that those higher standards should be determined by the people who are educating the children in those particular states.”
Christie may soon find that in New Hampshire, it is better to stick to the bluntness.