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Chris Christie confronts a crossroads at N.H. GOP Summit

Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat Foster, spoke to diners in Manchester, N.H. He also held a town-hall style meeting.Darren McCollester/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey once considered a leading contender for the GOP's presidential nomination, has spent much of the week here charming the locals, pitching his brand of tough-talk conservatism — and trying to put it all back together.

The Granite State has emerged as something of a crossroads for Christie, who will dutifully assemble with a host of other GOP hopefuls in Nashua this weekend for the First-in-the-Nation Republican Leadership Summit, a state party fund-raiser and command performance for 19 prospective presidential contenders.

But the gathering may hold more import for Christie, who said he will probably decide on a campaign in late spring or early summer, than any other potential candidates.


"It is terrible to say that this is late, but so many people have gained so much ground," said Juliana Bergeron, the state's national GOP committeewoman. "If he does poorly here, it might not matter how he does in the other states."

Recent polls, still more than nine months from the date of the primary, show Christie behind Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and US Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky — but still in competition.

Controversies in his home state, including the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal, have damaged his national brand and dented his poll numbers.

Christie gamely waded into the rapidly evolving primary fight this week, opening with a Tuesday policy address at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, where he proposed curbing entitlement benefits for affluent older Americans. He hosted his first town-hall meeting outside his home state, where he has held more than 130 such sessions.

Appearing relaxed and comfortable, he held court for about an hour-and-a-half at a Londonderry Lions Club, fielding questions on topics like vaccinations, Iran, Cuba, college costs, and entitlement programs.


Putting Christie in settings like those, along with a string of retail politics stops that showcased his everyman appeal and apparent candor-at-all-costs approach to interacting with voters, are part of an overall strategy to redraw the Republican field with Christie again at the head of the pack in New Hampshire.

"He loves the town-hall format, which is an integral part of engaging voters in New Hampshire," said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist who advised former Texas governor Rick Perry in 2012 but is unaffiliated this cycle. "And if he does what he did the other day in terms of his tone and tenor, he has the potential to do very well."

Talking with reporters Tuesday in Manchester, Christie this week chalked up his unleavened poll numbers to his tendency to "speak my mind." And he brushed off the idea that he is an ideological moderate, saying many people assumed that because "I'm a northeastern Republican who's a little ethnic."

But his stances on issues like immigration and gun control hamstring his chances in Iowa, whose caucuses make it the only state before this one on the nominating calendar, and whose primary electorate is among the country's most conservative.

Christie last year signed a state law granting in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants, and his administration has proposed stricter requirements on gun sellers.

"You have to either win or do surprisingly well in either New Hampshire or Iowa," said Charlie Arlinghaus, a former GOP strategist and now president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a conservative think tank in New Hampshire. "It's unlikely the same people will do well in both states. For someone like Christie or Jeb Bush, New Hampshire is a state where you have to show that you are a finalist."


Christie sought this week to establish his Granite State credentials, frequently mentioning he had campaigned here in 2011 and 2012 on behalf of Mitt Romney's presidential bid, and again last year for gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein, when Christie was chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

And he dialed back the sometimes confrontational tone of his public appearances, which has drawn criticism at times as boorishness.

At Wednesday's town hall, he spoke warmly of both his parents, offering an extended anecdote about sitting by his mother's deathbed. He grew emotional as he discussed his son's acceptance into Princeton.

When one man at the Londonderry Lions Club forum challenged Christie over the decision to raze a New Jersey psychiatric hospital as an example of fiscal waste, Christie politely but firmly rejected the premise.

Still, he also flashed the ability to wield the needle that helped make him a national figure. Mentioning a small band of protesters outside the hall, he said they appeared to be too busy talking with each other to notice when his car drove past.

"Clue to protesters: Keep your eye out for the black Suburbans, OK?" Christie cracked, referring to the vehicles favored by some governors.

And, as he waged a charm offensive in New Hampshire and largely confined his public criticism to Democrats like President Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christie took to the conservative airwaves to swipe at Bush for not articulating a specific enough foreign policy vision.


If Christie is to come back, it would have to be with a dual-track approach, increasing his national standing while flexing the retail muscle so highly prized in New Hampshire, analysts said.

"You've got to be competitive elsewhere, too, and you've got to have the resources and infrastructure to run a national campaign in order to be taken seriously in January," Carney said.

At Caesario's Pizza in downtown Manchester, Christie appeared well on his way, posing with a smile as three employees snapped cellphone pictures from behind the counter.

Don VanDenBerghe, regional sales manager at a tea company, said he thought Christie had been unfairly treated by the media but had come through it in decent shape.

"I think it's paramount that we put up somebody who can weather the storm and the Democratic machine," VanDenBerghe said.

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