Christie's Selling Point: 'Anyone But Trump'
With little more than an endorsement from the Manchester Union-Leader this weekend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's presidential quest has come back to life. In recent years, the tap hasn’t been worth much -- just ask Newt Gingrich. But for Christie, it’s the first spot of brightness in a campaign waged in the darkest shadows. New Hampshire's most influential newspaper has administered an elixir that's allowed Christie to man up to his pre-Bridgegate self, and attract some attention from the press, at least for now.
Thus fortified, Christie did what any sensible candidate in this crazy election would do -- he invaded Donald Trump’s airspace with attacks. The route to press attention lies through Trump. A 10-point program on health care won't get you there.
Pre-endorsement, Christie was mild in his criticism of Trump. Afterward, he edged close to calling him a liar for his repeated -- and repeatedly debunked -- claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on Sept. 11 after the twin towers came down. Christie said, “People can say anything, but the facts are the facts, and that didn’t happen in New Jersey that day and hasn’t happened since.”
The New Jersey governor also took on Trump for mocking New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski after he refused to back up Trump’s claims of Sept. 11 merrymaking. Christie then promised that he was the guy to stand up to Trump. "If Donald starts yelling and screaming at me in the middle of a speech, you could be sure that I'll say sit down and shut up," he said, reprising one of his famous put-downs.
It takes a bully to bully one. Trump fired back that New Jerseyans who know Christie best don’t like him and warned the governor to be “careful” about what he said.
But on Tuesday, Christie may have sabotaged his brief moment in the spotlight with some teapot-and-kettle overreach, telling members of the press they “should be ashamed” of themselves for continually asking him about Trump.
Candidate, heal thyself. Like the other “losers” as Trump calls them, Christie is playing the press game of “enough about you, what do you think about Trump?” The difference is that if Christie gets his mojo back, the "get the hell off the beach" pol might give the intemperate real estate tycoon a run for his money in the insult-trading department.
With the Republican establishment desperate to gather round anyone who can save them from Trump, New Hampshire is more important than ever. (The Iowa caucuses are likely to send a mixed message: a Trump win, an evangelical in second place, and the establishment candidates clustered behind.) An establishment second place in New Hampshire and the party grandees will be weak with relief. They will embrace just about any candidate who can restore order to the universe by showing strength in the Granite State.
Christie has all but ignored Iowa to focus on New Hampshire. As of Monday, he’d visited the state 49 times, hosted 36 official town halls and held more than 112 other events. That helped him win the endorsement of the Union-Leader -- which despite some sneering, all the other Republican candidates would have liked to have -- but also the support of coveted activists, such as the former speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives Donna Sytek, and a coalition of law enforcement officials, who added luster to his law-and-order, tough-on-terror aura.
The latest polls have shown some improvement for him since mid-October. He’s done well enough at the debates. He didn’t make the cut for the main event last time but won praise for his performance at the kid’s table. He got a lot of positive attention for a moving talk he gave on drug addiction last month.
It's too bad he isn't running for president of New Hampshire. The ink barely was dry on the Union-Leader paean that he got a reminder of his liabilities as a national candidate from his home state's most prominent newspaper, the Star Ledger, which called him a “slick character” who’s failed on jobs, pensions, Hurricane Sandy and bond ratings.
He was criticized for spending almost as much time away from Trenton as Senator Marco Rubio has spent skipping his day job in Washington.
Christie’s advantage over Rubio is that he isn’t tainted by Washington and his advantage over Jeb Bush is that he’s younger and isn’t named Bush.
Two months is forever in political time and everything could change after the new year. That’s when voters will tire of the pie-throwing contest and start to pay attention. If the Republican field becomes a little more settled and a window of opportunity opens, Christie, almost as tough and brash as Trump, could climb through. It’s a strange and surprising race and likely to become more so.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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