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Chris Christie: Can New Hampshire deliver a comeback?

Relegated to the kiddie table in the next GOP presidential debate, the New Jersey governor is investing heavily in visits to the Granite State. He's been there more than any other candidate to date. 

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    Republican presidential candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey speaks during a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Oct. 30, 2015.
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It is hard to remember, but four years ago many Republicans (and pundits), concerned about what they viewed as Mitt Romney’s lackluster candidacy and a generally weak Republican field, were imploring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter their party’s presidential race. Governor Christie demurred, claiming that he was not yet ready for a presidential run. As late as November 2013, however, polls still showed him leading the field of prospective 2016 Republican candidates. Now that Christie has thrown his hat in the ring, however, it’s not clear that voters are ready for him. Despite what many observers saw as a strong performance in the last Republican debate, Christie continues to lag in national polls, and last week Fox News announced that he had been relegated to the kiddie debate table, along with Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, for the next Republican debate night.

Like many struggling candidates, including John Kasich, Lindsey Graham and Jeb!, Christie appears to have staked his candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire, a state he has visited 31 times, more than any other candidate to date. There is some evidence that his persistence is paying off – although he continues to draw single-digit support in Granite State polling, the most recent poll there shows Christie climbing into 5th place, with 8% support, the highest he has been there for some time.

Is this the sign of a Christie comeback? As part of our continuing campaign coverage, your intrepid blogger attended Christie’s campaign event held yesterday at the Salt Hill Pub in Hanover, N.H., part of Christie’s #TellingItLikeItIs campaign tour. It was a standing room only audience, which I estimated at about 200 people, many of them college students, who crammed into the pub. The cramped quarters lent an air of intimacy to the event that stood in stark contrast to the more rock star feel that characterized the Sanders’ event I attended last week in nearby Lebanon. Fortunately, by luck of the draw, I was positioned about 10 feet from the candidate throughout the event.

Christie arrived wearing a dark jacket with matching tie over his white dress shirt, but he shed the jacket during the Q&A session which took up most of the nearly hour-and-a-half long event. Before answering questions, however, he opened with a brief but heartfelt vignette about a former drug addict who went through rehab, rather than being jailed for drug possession, and who as a result recovered to reclaim his life. “Everybody makes bad choices,” he noted. “My mother was addicted to cigarettes … but when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, no one came and said ‘Don’t treat her, she got what she deserved!’ " Christie’s point is that more resources should be expended targeting treatment and recovery of addicts rather than putting them in jail.

The issue of drug addiction has become a familiar talking point for Christie on the campaign trail, and this video based on Christie’s approach regarding how to treat drug addiction have received more than a 7 million online views.  It is evident he cares deeply about the issue, but it’s not entirely clear to me why he has opted to make it the centerpiece of his New Hampshire campaign. It is true that New Hampshire, like my home state of Vermont, is suffering from a rise in opiate addiction, fueled by an influx of cheap heroin. But polls suggest New Hampshire voters view national security and the economy as more important issues. Nonetheless it may be that Christie sees an opening to position himself as the party’s “compassionate conservative," in contrast to the more conservative social views espoused by some of his party rivals.

After this brief opening statement, Christie took about a dozen questions from what appeared to be a generally friendly crowd, albeit one that showed less dyed-in-the-wool partisanship than, say, a Bernie Sanders crowd. The topics ranged from how to deal with the Chinese island-building effort in the South China sea – “I’d fly Air Force One over the islands” – to Obamacare – (Repeal it and turn health care over to the states) – to Dodd-Frank (repeal it for small community banks and allow states to regulate them). On the environment, in contrast to many of his Republican rivals, Christie believes that global climate change is driven in part by human activity, and he supports efforts to reduce global emissions using alternative energy sources – but not through cap-and-trade policies. In this vein, he touted New Jersey’s heavy reliance on nuclear power (“Fifty-three percent of our electricity is produced by nuclear power”) and solar energy (“New Jersey is in the Top 3 solar states, behind California and Arizona”) while trying to phase out coal-powered plants. Christie says each state must adopt the mix of energy sources that works best for them in combating climate change (“Iowa should emphasize wind turbines.”) But he acknowledged that reducing carbon emissions is a global problem and emphasized the need to work with the Chinese on this issue, although he was notably short on specifics regarding how he might do so. When asked about increasing funding for space exploration, Christie used the question as an opportunity to cite the need for reforming entitlement programs which he said consumes more than 70% of the federal budget. “I’m sorry, but until we tackle this issue, I’m not going to be increasing money on the space program.” On campaign finance, Christie says he would allow unlimited direct contributions to candidates, but make sure they were posted for full transparency online within 24 hours.

When it came to foreign policy, Christie generally took a much more hardline approach than on domestic affairs. When asked how he would deal with the Syrian war, he recommended imposing a no-fly zone. “Someone asked me what I would do if the Russians violated it. I would shoot them down.” They would have been warned, he noted. Later, when asked about how to deal with the Syrian refugee problem he argued that it was caused in part by Obama’s failure to keep his word. “He drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, then did nothing when Assad crossed it.” Christie called for greater international support, including from the US, to help settle refugees, but at the same time he opposed allowing them into the US due to security concerns. When pressed by a college student why we would expect US military involvement in Syria to turn out any better than when the US intervened in Iraq, some of the famous Christie bluster appeared. “What would you do?” he shot back. “Would you let Assad stay in power to murder a quarter million of his people?” The US’s responsibility, he insisted, was to empower the Syrian people to prevent genocide as well as the imposition of an Islamic state. In a line that received perhaps the greatest applause of the event, Christie noted somewhat acidly that, “We can talk about American imperialism which is a nice college word … but reality is more nuanced.”

At only one point during the event did Christie’s reputation for bullying critics appear to come close to being validated. A woman asked him to reconcile his views on abortion – Christie is pro-life, but with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother – with his support of capital punishment. In an interesting response, he answered that he views capital punishment as a means of defending the state, which is the same justification for his pro-life stance which is designed to defend the unborn child. When the woman pressed him by asking what a woman who was impregnated through rape was supposed to do during the many months it might require getting a rape conviction, Christie bristled. “Let’s not get cute here,” he chided the questioner, arguing that forensic evidence would immediately establish evidence for rape and discounting the likelihood that women will falsely claim rape to justify an abortion. “What I’m basically saying here is that we need to take the woman’s word.” To be clear, Christie softened his tone near the end of the exchange, and the woman thanked him for his response.

When asked about dealing with Congress as president, Christie again used the question to take several shots at Obama. While characterizing Congress as a “den of vipers," Christie pointed out that dealing with the New Jersey legislature wasn’t “an Easter egg hunt.” He cited three keys to working with an opposition legislature. First, he stressed the need to speak clearly in emphasizing priorities. “You can’t be everything to everyone.” Second, he cited the importance of developing a good personal working relationship with legislative leaders. Here he chided Obama for waiting almost seven years to invite House Republican leader and later Speaker John Boehner on Air Force One: “If I was president and Nancy Pelosi was speaker, I’d have her on the plane whenever she wanted.” Finally, he noted the importance of acting decisively when tackling problems, again contrasting his position with Obama’s actions: “I wouldn’t have taken seven years to make a decision on the Keystone pipeline.”

Near the end of the session, he had a chance to show his softer side when he was asked by an 11-year old girl how he would improve education. He stressed the need for parental involvement and a greater incorporation of technology: “Every student should have an IPad.” He would eliminate tenure for public school teachers in grade K-12 – “No one ever got fired for their views on algebra!” – and work to get rid of underperforming teachers. Here he blamed teachers unions for blocking educational reform. He finished by telling the girl how important it was for her to do her best, even on days when she might not feel like doing her homework, noting that “I have those days too!”

It is clear that Christie is trying to stake out a position as a social moderate in an attempt to differentiate himself from many of his more conservative Republican rivals. But he is not averse to taking a hard-line policy stance on many issues, particularly in foreign policy. It remains to be seen how this will play out in New Hampshire. In this vein, his biggest rivals may be Jeb! and Kasich, two other big-state governors who have relatively moderate positions among Republicans on social issues, but who are also adopting a “get tough” foreign policy. But in contrast to both of their more laid-back demeanors, Christie exudes a brashness and edge that many in yesterday’s audience seemed to appreciate, although one person did question whether that temperament was most conducive to dealing with foreign leaders. Christie’s response was classic: “I have a lot of clubs in my bag. When the media covers me they usually focus on when I use my driver. But when I get close to a policy objective, I can use the pitching wedge.”

At this point, about 100 days before the New Hampshire primary, the race for the Republican nomination is still on the front nine. New Hampshire voters are notoriously slow in making up their minds, and there is some evidence that the process is even more glacial this electoral cycle due to the large number of candidates camped out in the Granite State. It remains to be seen whether Christie can pull off the political equivalent of a hole-in-one. But I, for one, hope he stays in the race for the duration, if for no other reason than to watch him take that uniquely Christie golf swing. Cue the driver!

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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