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Chris Christie hosts major town hall in New Hampshire

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took questions during a town hall meeting in Londonderry, N.H.Jim Cole/Associated Press

LONDONDERRY, N.H. – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, looking to make inroads in the state’s first primary state ahead of a potential presidential campaign, sought Wednesday to marry a political tool he has used in New Jersey with a popular local tradition: the town hall meeting.

Talking with a capacity crowd at a Lions Club, Christie said the federal government should link colleges’ access to federal grant money with cost controls, criticized President Obama’s handling of intelligence agencies, and waved off concerns about his fiscal conservatism.

With a banner proclaiming the “Tell It Like It Is” tour and an American flag hanging in the background, Christie quickly doffed his suit jacket and told the crowd of more than 250 that the town hall was a local tradition he admired and has sought to bring to his home state, holding more than 130 such sessions of his own.

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And the crowd appeared appreciative, offering Christie applause, praise and, at one point, entreaties to formalize his 2016 candidacy.

Continuing to align himself with the GOP’s more hawkish national security wing, Christie said he would be willing to commit US troops to fight ISIS, and criticized a pending nuclear agreement with Iran, while adding that he would not close the door on negotiations.

But Christie earned his biggest applause when he turned down one crowd member’s request to support a conscientious exemption from childhood vaccinations.

“Yeah, no, you can’t count on me for that,” said Christie to applause, later explaining he supports a “narrowly tailored” religious exemption like the one in New Jersey.

Christie opened by talking about his father and his late mother, from whom he said he derived the candid style he hopes will appeal to voters.

“As I enter into a national conversation, I enter into it with those traits: someone who’s willing to speak their mind, who’s not going to wait for deathbed confessions – you’re gonna hear it now,” Christie said.

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He criticized Obama for weighing the normalization of relations with Cuba, pointing specifically to the country’s harboring of a woman convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973.

“It is a national disgrace that this president would even consider normalizing relations while they are harboring a terrorist murderer,” said Christie, his voice rising.

Wednesday’s town-hall meeting comes on the second day of a sustained Christie offensive in New Hampshire, where he delivered a speech laying out his plan to change Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid on Wednesday and has made a handful of retail stops.

After returning to New Jersey, Christie will be back in New Hampshire Friday for a leadership conference in Nashua that is drawing top national Republicans also considering the White House race.

Since he arrived in New Hampshire, Christie has consistently said he plans a decision on whether to run in the late spring or early summer.

Christie bemoaned the cost of college education, saying he and his wife, Mary Pat, who also attended, are planning to spend $120,000 on two tuitions next year.

He said colleges receiving federal money should be required to demonstrate cost-control efforts.

Christie also criticized Obama’s national security stances, blaming him for aging military hardware and saying, “We cannot do what this president has done, which is to kill the morale of our intelligence agencies.”

One of the first audience inquiries came from a man who questioned the fiscal rationale behind the decision to raze Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, a controversial decision in New Jersey. Christie countered that the building’s destruction was, instead, an example of his fiscal conservatism.

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“We made the decision that I think was the most cost-effective,” he said.

On balance, the crowd appeared receptive to Christie’s first town hall meeting here, which at times grew emotional when he talked about the death of his mother from lung cancer. Christie greeted several local residents who said they had New Jersey ties, and he teased a second similar session on Friday night in Exeter.

“We’re doing a town hall meeting in a bar, ’cause a guy from Jersey should do a town hall meeting in a bar,” he said to laughs.

After the meeting, during which he posed the question to Christie about when he might formally declare candidacy, Paul Clark, 81, of Nashua said the performance tilted him toward Christie as he considers the 2016 field.

“I thought the he was superb. In a small group like this, he really carried the crowd,” said Clark, who described himself as “a serious Republican activist.”


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.