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OPINON

Chris Christie takes on mission impossible in GOP presidential nomination race

Though it’s not likely the New Jersey governor will win the nomination, the questions he raises about fellow Republicans resonate with New Hampshire voters.

During a Sept. 11 campaign event in Rye, N.H., Chris Christie, a Republican presidential primary candidate, autographed a photo of him with Barack Obama.SOPHIE PARK/NYT

Maybe it’s the New Jersey in him, but Chris Christie seems to relish a good fight. Polling at about 3 percent according to the Real Clear Politics Average, he’ll need that signature pugnacity to convince voters to help him defeat Donald Trump and take the Republican presidential nomination.

“There was one lasting thing from [the first Republican debate],” he told the crowd at Scott Brown’s No B.S. Backyard BBQ in Rye, N.H. “Six people raised their hands that night. But I made my position very clear … we should have a higher bar for president of the United States of America,” he said, referring to the question about whether candidates would support Trump as the nominee. Christie, a self-proclaimed reformed Trump follower, is in this presidential race to take down the big guy. With the former president polling well over 50 percent, it’s just shy of a kamikaze mission.

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One of Christie’s main battlegrounds will be New Hampshire, where he’s made multiple appearances. On Sept. 11, I went to one. It was a drizzly, foggy evening at the farm where Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, has hosted a slate of primary candidates, giving voters the chance to meet the competitors for free in an intimate setting.

Christie, who’s polling in third place in the Granite State according to the Real Clear Politics Average, said he thinks that a strong performance in New Hampshire will give him enough national momentum to seriously contend with Trump for the Republican nomination. Though it’s unclear how he will put together a broad constituency, undecided Republicans seem to appreciate his ability to throw punches at Trump and discuss conservative policy that other candidates shy away from.

Christie isn’t fazed by steep odds and tough conversations. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, or perhaps it’s because he’s faced uphill political battles before. As about 120 attendees sheltered from the rain in a barn and took bites of their hot dogs and sips of beer, Christie and Scott reminisced about the good old days — when Republicans only needed to beat Democrats to get to the White House.

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In 2010, Christie and Brown took office in blue states; Christie won the governorship in deep blue territory. Inside the barn that the Browns use for speaking events, Christie recounted the evening of his 2010 inauguration party, which fell on the same night that Brown, a Republican, won a US Senate seat in Massachusetts. “I delayed going out [to my party] to watch [Brown] give his victory speech that night. … It was a great sense of momentum for our party and for our country.”

That momentum was blunted by Trump, who’s unpopular leadership not only lost Republicans the White House in 2020 but stifled the red wave that never was. For Christie, who supported Trump after he dropped out of the race in 2016 and served in his administration, Trump’s election denial was the last straw. To Christie, there isn’t “any graver crime you can commit” than being a leader who violates the Constitution.

A gifted speaker, Christie addressed his greatest weakness — his past Trump affiliation — head-on and with a compelling mix of humor and severity. “I’m not someone who was a never-Trumper — I wasn’t,” he offered seriously. “But you have to meet a certain standard in your personal conduct and your political conduct.” Even if you disagree with some of the criminal charges brought against Trump — “there’s some I agree with … and some I disagree with,” he added — Trump’s conduct, he said, was “unacceptable … for a president.”

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Christie spoke quietly at times and you could hear the light rain as the crowd held on to each word. Then, a burst of laughter. “I didn’t want to keep you up tonight, but I played Hillary Clinton in debate practice in 2016.” And Christie jokes that, in 2020, “he took sedatives then played Joe Biden.”

But rhetorical excellence won’t be enough. Christie will also have to hope that time has dulled certain parts of his governorship. As a conservative governor, he achieved bail reform, took on the public unions, and got taxes under control, all with a Democratic Legislature. During Superstorm Sandy, he was praised nationally for his exceptional leadership.

But his governorship became mired in scandals and snafus. The big one was Bridgegate, the 2013 traffic jam scandal that occurred when Christie’s staffers closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge, followed by Beachgate in 2017, when Christie used a state beach Fourth of July weekend that was closed to the public due to a state government shutdown. Christie’s once-high approval rating dropped to a historic low of 15 percent and he was perceived as being checked out from his state responsibilities, especially as he went on to run for president.

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It’s not entirely clear who will be a part of a Christie coalition. Anti-Trump conservatives could fault him for not seeing the blinding orange light sooner. MAGA loyalists see him as a traitor. As he walked out of the barn after his speech, I asked the former governor, who does that leave for Chris Christie?

“The second group of folks” — the dubious anti-Trump conservatives — “I don’t think you’re accurate” about how they’re feeling. And the Trump voters? Some will “ultimately decide he can’t win, and the only thing they would hate less than Donald Trump losing would be Joe Biden winning … we continue to make the case.”

Though Christie might struggle to build a natural voter base, he’s playing a vital role in this race nonetheless. He’s holding a mirror up to his own party, and not just Trump and his cronies. Christie’s bringing issues to the table that conservatives should be championing but that most of the Republican candidates have been too scared to talk about.

He says the obvious about Social Security and Medicare: “If we don’t touch Social Security and Medicare and try to fix it, it will go broke.” To the Democrats and Republicans that gave President Biden a standing ovation at his State of the Union when he said the entitlements wouldn’t be touched: “Liars and hypocrites.”

And on foreign policy, he’s not afraid to call out the emerging isolationist wing of the party. “America has never been a great country where we fill in the moat and we pull up the drawbridge from the rest of the world,” he said, adding that the war in Ukraine is a “proxy war with China.” President Xi Jinping is watching to see the outcome: “If we back off [in our support of Ukraine], Taiwan is next.” Add zero-based budgeting and a school choice agenda to the list of unabashed takes.

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Voters at Brown’s event represent what I suspect most non-Trump Republicans feel: They like the punches that Christie is throwing, but they’re not necessarily in his corner. Scott, a semi-retired 60 year old from Portsmouth who preferred not to share his last name, is leaning toward Nikki Haley but likes how Christie takes on Trump. “He’s a bull in a china shop on that issue — I think it’s great.”

Steve Deorocki, 69, and his wife, Marie Deorocki, 72, are also leaning toward Haley but liked Christie’s debate performance. “I don’t necessarily think he’s going to go all the way but I enjoy his honesty — he’s kind of an equalizer,” Steve Deorocki said. “I’m kinda glad he’s in it — I don’t think he’s gonna get far,” Marie Deorocki said.

Christie is raising the same tough questions about Trump and the Republican Party’s policies that voters are asking themselves. But that also means that Christie is stepping on a lot of toes, a difficult strategy in a primary, especially one that is so divided. If he really wants to defeat Trump, he’ll also have to know when it’s time to pack up and free up support for a more likely contender. Christie has said that if he doesn’t perform strongly in New Hampshire, he’ll leave the race.

Whether he goes the distance or ends up self-destructing, Christie will have at least raised those questions and forced more successful candidates to face them. It’s the good fight, for now.


Carine Hajjar is a Globe Opinion writer. She can be reached at carine.hajjar@globe.com.