MERRIMACK, N.H. — Like many of the other New Hampshire Republicans out shopping for a presidential candidate one recent Thursday night, the man in the blue shirt and blazer sat quietly for most of Chris Christie’s town hall, laughing and nodding at the appropriate moments, occasionally whispering to the person next to him.
But the 49-year-old in the front row — with a youthful smile, a microphone in his hands, and a pin on his lapel — also got some special attention from the presidential candidate.
“You got anything to add to that, gov?” Christie asked after answering a voter question, turning to Chris Sununu.
Once seen as a potential presidential contender himself, the New Hampshire governor has become the state’s most sought-after undecided voter, as well as its most prominent booster. As the remaining Republican candidates jostle for position in a primary still dominated by former president Donald Trump, Sununu — who has made it no secret he doesn’t think Trump should be the nominee — is touring the former president’s rivals around New Hampshire shops, diners, and banquet halls, advertising them to voters while remaining coy about whom he plans to vote for himself.
As he undertakes this goodwill tour, Sununu is not just an additional draw for the crowds, but also an avatar for the state’s proud first-in-the-nation primary voters, who like to be courted before they offer up their support.
With Christie earlier this month, he talked up the former New Jersey governor — he “crushed it” at the recent Republican debate, Sununu said — while remaining neutral himself.
“It ain’t about me, right? It’s about New Hampshire,” Sununu told reporters after the town hall. “There’s a reason we’re first. I take a lot of pride and ownership of that. And I want to make sure that these candidates get the most out of New Hampshire, and New Hampshire can give the most back to the United States.”
He shrugged and smiled, then added, “If I can move the needle more for someone, that’s great too.”
There are plenty of candidates who would welcome his help, particularly as polls show that Trump remains dominant in New Hampshire. Sununu, a Trump critic who passed on a presidential bid and is not seeking reelection to the governor’s office, is the biggest up-for-grabs Republican in New Hampshire politics, an exceedingly popular leader whose support could lift a second-tier candidate seeking to dislodge Trump’s hold on the GOP nomination.
Sununu had a 63 percent approval rating as of August and easily won reelection in this purple state in 2022, besting his Democratic rival by 15 percentage points. His support could prove meaningful, particularly as the field narrows; in a recent poll, 13 percent of GOP primary voters said that Sununu’s endorsement would influence their own selection — a potentially game-changing boost for candidates whose vote share currently hovers in the teens.
“I would love to have Chris working with me,” Christie told reporters in Merrimack, noting that he and the New Hampshire governor have been friends for years. “No endorsement, no matter how popular you are at the moment, is ever determinative of anything. But do I want Chris to help me? Of course I do. You’d be dumb not to.”
Sununu has appeared with several Republican candidates. But noting that he’s “pretty partial to governors,” he has indicated he’s narrowed his choices to Christie, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In a notable tie between the two governors, a former Sununu aide, David Abrams, is now a top DeSantis supporter, having left the presidential campaign over the summer to head an outside group supporting the Florida governor. DeSantis has already won the support of the governor of the other crucial early state — Kim Reynolds of Iowa — an endorsement he is touting as he campaigns there ahead of the January caucuses.
Sununu said he’s likely to make his endorsement after Thanksgiving.
As they stand beside him, in front of New Hampshire voters and news cameras, candidates have not been shy about seeking his support.
“Are you ready to endorse me yet?” Haley asked the governor during a campaign swing in Londonderry earlier this month, to laughter and applause from the crowd.
“Getting closer every day,” Sununu replied.
But Sununu has also not shrunk from calling it how he sees it; indeed the four-term governor seems to be enjoying his freedom to speak his mind. He appeared, for instance, to knock DeSantis as they campaigned together in Londonderry last month, opining that “the race is actually wide open” while standing next to the Florida governor whose allies have argued for months is locked in a two-man race against Trump. It was a not-so-subtle correction of that theory and a gentle reiteration that New Hampshire remains up for grabs and should be fought for.
Not every Republican candidate is running toward Sununu. After the governor said that businessman Vivek Ramaswamy did not have the right “temperament” to be president, Ramaswamy made clear he is not seeking Sununu’s support. Ramaswamy said Sununu is the “face of the establishment” and called his endorsement the “kiss of death to whichever candidate gets it.” There is also no love lost between Sununu and Trump, who have traded barbs.
But others see Sununu as a prized anti-Trump Republican in a crucial early state, playing a potentially key role bringing other persuadable GOP voters along with him to crown a Trump alternative.
“Chris Sununu has shown when he decides to endorse, he’s going to get in with both feet,” said Jim Merrill, a longtime New Hampshire political operative who directed Mitt Romney’s presidential bids in the state. “Having the very popular, very successful sitting governor of New Hampshire at your side ... that will be a big differentiator.”
As he accompanies presidential hopefuls around his home state, Sununu is part candidate appraiser, part brand ambassador for New Hampshire and its first-in-the-nation primary. While national Democrats have snubbed the state, looking to take away its prized early slot in the nominating calendar, Sununu is arguing full force for its importance. And to presidential candidates, he is also offering a master class on the retail politics that New Hampshire is known for — and which are on the decline as campaigns shift toward a more national, online, and on-air model. Sununu took Senator Tim Scott (who has since dropped out of the race) to an ice cream shop and appeared with Haley at a diner; he has chastised Trump for keeping his supporters “behind rope lines.”
“Nobody does getting elected in New Hampshire better than Sununu,” said Lori Davis, a Republican political activist who volunteered for Trump in past election cycles but this year is not supporting the former president. “He’s trying to teach all of them what to do in New Hampshire.”
That example was on full display earlier this month when Christie and Sununu appeared together at the VFW Post in Merrimack. As the two gubernatorial Chrises made their way to the microphones, attendees were eager to shake hands with and embrace both. A handful of voters told the Globe — only some of them joking — that Sununu was the greater draw for attendees, not the candidate for president of the United States.
Still, as he introduced Christie, Sununu struck a modest tone.
“Oh please, sit down,” he shushed the eager crowd. “You’re not here for me!”