Christie visits New Hampshire, as a friend

As he campaigns with Havenstein, Christie signs a photograph in Bedford, N.H. Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was quick to dismiss the idea his visit signaled presidential ambitions.
As he campaigns with Havenstein, Christie signs a photograph in Bedford, N.H. Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was quick to dismiss the idea his visit signaled presidential ambitions.
Posted: June 23, 2014

BEDFORD, N.H. - As he shook hands, snapped selfies, and bantered with bartenders in a New Hampshire restaurant, Gov. Christie looked like a man who hopes the state known for its first-in-the-nation presidential primary will also be one of the first to accept him as a politician reborn after several months in scandal-induced purgatory.

New Hampshire "is a great place," Christie said Friday as he and Walt Havenstein, a Republican running for governor, greeted patrons around the bar and in booths at T-Bones. "And I'll be here a lot" - for Havenstein - he said.

Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was quick to dismiss the idea his visit signaled presidential ambitions, but that didn't stop the people he met from opining on them.

Patrick McCoy, a Republican from Nashua who owns a small-engine repair business, said he told Christie the last governor he shook hands with became president - Ronald Reagan.

Christie's reply? "He said it was good karma," McCoy said, sitting in a booth with his wife, Denise. Both were fans of the governor: "I think he tells it like it is," McCoy said. "America needs somebody with a spine in the White House."

Were he to run, strategists say, Christie should fare well in New Hampshire, where the largely moderate Republican electorate has favored pragmatic politicians and has shown an appreciation for straight talk.

Veterans of New Hampshire campaigns say Christie has the charisma needed to succeed at the town-hall meetings and retail politics that are a trademark of the contest.

But it might not be an easy road for Christie, whose national star took a hit from the George Washington Bridge revelations at the start of his second term. An April WMUR Granite State Poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found Christie's favorability rating at 43 percent among registered Republicans likely to vote in the primary, compared with a 41 percent unfavorability rating.

And while Christie's blunt-spoken style could serve him well among voters who eschew Washington slickness, some wonder whether he would come across as too confrontational as a primary campaign wears on.

"He does sort of personify New Jersey," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "The question is: Does the shtick grow old?"

New Hampshire presents high stakes for Christie, who has continued to stir speculation about his plans for 2016 while traveling the country as RGA chairman and, in an apparent attempt at image repair, dancing on national television this month with Jimmy Fallon.

If Christie were to run for president, "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say New Hampshire's a do-or-die state for him," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

To clinch their party's nomination, presidential candidates typically have to win in either New Hampshire or Iowa, which hosts the first caucus in the campaign. The early contests narrow the field, and the winners emerge as front-runners, netting the most media attention, Scala said.

Iowa, however, is considered less friendly territory for Christie, with a substantial bloc of religious conservatives who tend to focus on social issues.

New Hampshire, by contrast, "has always been socially almost libertarian," said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist who was an adviser to the campaigns of former President George W. Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who easily won the state's Republican primary in 2012. "We want small government, frugal government, responsive government."

The once solidly red state has moved to the left over the years and the Republican base has become "less doctrinaire," Rath said, influenced by the migration of Massachusetts residents to southern New Hampshire - with demographics Rath said now resemble the Jersey suburbs.

That doesn't mean Christie wouldn't face hurdles. "If there's such a thing as being overexposed, almost a year and a half before the primary, it's Chris Christie," Scala said. Like Romney, Christie is well-known in New Hampshire, "but he doesn't have the warm feelings New Hampshire Republicans had toward Romney."

A poll released last week by Suffolk University found Christie tied for the lead with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in a crowded field of potential Republican contenders in New Hampshire, with 11 percent of the vote. If Romney were added to the mix, however, he would take 24 percent - leaving Christie in single digits, the poll found.

Christie, who last appeared in New Hampshire in 2012 while campaigning for Romney, appears to be taking the state seriously. Former Christie campaign aide Matt Mowers is executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party, while former communications staffer Colin Reed is working for Scott Brown's bid here for the U.S. Senate.

Christie is expected to return to New Hampshire in July - when he's also planning to travel to Iowa on behalf of Gov. Terry Branstad.

His trip Friday was unusual in that he endorsed a candidate in a contested primary. A businessman backed by the Republican establishment, Havenstein is being challenged by entrepreneur Andrew Hemingway in a bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Conservative activists in the state are skeptical of Christie, who they say seems to play both sides of the partisan divide "as opposed to sticking to conservative values," said Republican State Rep. JR Hoell, a vocal gun-rights supporter. "The tendency to be a politician vs. a statesman is a big issue in New Hampshire."

Hoell said Christie's "willingness to embrace some of Obama's policies has hurt" his standing with conservatives, citing New Jersey's decision to expand Medicaid.

New Hampshire, however, also recently expanded Medicaid - with the support of some Republicans. "I think people in New Hampshire like folks who will make tough decisions," said Republican State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, a former congressman who backed the expansion. "I think if it works out, Christie will benefit."

Bradley, who endorsed Romney in 2012, said Christie is "the type of person New Hampshire 'Live Free or Die' types like: plainspoken, doesn't tell you what you want to hear, but tells you what he thinks."

He didn't think Christie was too brash for Granite Staters: "We're used to the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry," said Bradley, who added that he watched YouTube videos of Christie for inspiration while working on pension-reform legislation in New Hampshire.

Voters interviewed last week on Main Street in Derry, a town near the Massachusetts border, indicated that Christie's personality could cut both ways - and that the scandal over his aides' orchestrating traffic jams was well-known, though it didn't necessarily worsen their impressions of him.

Laurie Lussier, 48, of nearby Londonderry, who works in special education, said "the big story about the bridge closing" is what people hear about Christie. "I never really liked him," said Lussier, who voted for Romney in 2012. She said Christie's "arrogance . . . would be a turnoff to people around here."

More receptive to Christie was Mike Gleason, 51, a handyman from Contoocook, a town outside the state capital, Concord. "He's certainly a ball of fire," said Gleason, who also went for Romney in 2012. "He just seems to add life. . . . If the election were tomorrow, I'd probably vote for him."

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

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