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OPINION

Chris Christie sees — and tries to seize — his moment

The Republican Party needs a candidate who tells rather than sidesteps tough truths, he tells voters in New Hampshire.

Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie spoke during a "Tell It Like It Is" town hall at the Bedford Event Center on Dec. 19, 2023, in Bedford, N.H.Sophie Park/Getty

SEABROOK, N.H.

If you’re well back in the presidential primary pack, politics requires not just optimism in the face of adverse indicators but self-confidence, salesmanship, and stubbornness — and as he campaigns in New Hampshire, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has all four in abundance.

A candidate who frequently blundered across the unmarked border between blunt and obnoxious when he ran for president in 2016, Christie has mellowed in a way that rounds the abrasiveness off his no-nonsense New Jersey persona. He styles himself as a straight talker, the one plausible GOP candidate with the courage to tell citizens the truth not just about the authoritarian threat that former president Donald Trump poses but also about the tough fiscal and foreign policy challenges that face the country.

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Until now, his pitch has largely fallen on distracted ears in a primary race first framed as a Trump-Ron DeSantis contest and then, with the foundering of the febrile Floridian, as a Trump-Nikki Haley contest.

But Haley’s make-no-mention-of-slavery mishandling of a simple question about what caused the Civil War has suddenly given Christie a moment — a moment he hopes to make a defining metaphor for the Republican race.

Speaking recently to a crowd of about 50 at Linda’s Breakfast & Lunch Place in Seabrook, Christie highlighted Haley’s attempted sleight-of-tongue, even while noting that he had come to her defense in a recent debate when Vivek Ramaswamy disparaged her intelligence.

“She is smart and she knows exactly what she is doing,” he said. “And when she didn’t bring [slavery] up, it’s because she has had a history of being unwilling to offend anyone by telling the truth.”

Haley displays the same tendency when it comes to Trump, Christie said, citing her debate-expressed willingness to support him for president even if he is convicted of a felony, her unwillingness to rule out joining Trump on the 2024 ticket, and her recent statement that, if given the chance, she would pardon the former president should he be convicted on any of the 44 federal charges he faces.

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Speaking tough truths about Trump’s lack of presidential character and the danger he presents to democracy is hard, and “depending on where I am in the country, I get booed,” Christie said. But if a candidate is “worried about being booed than you have no business being president of the United States, because there are going to be a lot of tough things you are going to have to do as president.”

See the not-so-subtle syllogism? A candidate who won’t tell truths that get one booed shouldn’t be president. Haley won’t tell such truths. Therefore …

So how is Christie’s pitch playing? One Trump-supporting couple who were at Linda’s to eat, not listen, didn’t stick around to hear him out. They shrugged off virtually all aspects of Trump’s culpability for the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol, from lying about a stolen election to summoning MAGA to Washington to sending them “to fight like hell” to subvert the election results.

But other erstwhile Trump supporters were there to hear his chief GOP primary critic. Among those, count Ray Weaving, Republican retiree of Hampton. The straw that broke his back with Trump?

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“We have never had a president who incited an insurrection,” Weaving said.

Once a staunch Trump supporter, Jude Augusta, 52, of Hampton Falls, a Republican and part of a conservative breakfast group that meets at Linda’s, said disagreement over the former president had split the group of about 15 in half, with Trump loyalists deriding those who want a different 2024 nominee as “RINOs,” or Republicans In Name Only. Actually, Augusta and the other tired-of-Trumpers are considering DeSantis, Haley, Christie, and even Ramaswamy.

Although impressed by Christie, Augusta still strongly leans DeSantis. But Christie closed the deal with non-breakfast-clubber Bonnie McMahon, a Republican who had been considering him and Haley.

“I think he is what we need,” said the retired nurse, who added that Jan. 6 had ended any chance of her backing Trump again.

With three weeks left in the New Hampshire primary race, Governor Chris Sununu, a Haley backer, is calling on Christie to quit the race for fear he could split the anti-Trump vote.

Really? Just as crunch time commences?

For his part, Christie makes it clear he’s staying in — and with good reason. As he put it in a TV ad that’s been part of a million-dollar media buy, Trump will “burn America to the ground to help himself. Every Republican leader says that in private. I’m the only one saying it in public. … What kind of president do we want. A liar? Or someone who’s got the guts to tell the truth. New Hampshire, it’s up to you.”

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Which raises this question: Who here is really putting his faith in the discerning, sort-it-out savvy of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary voters? Of the two, it doesn’t seem to be you, Governor Sununu.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.