Bring­ing up the rear, Chris Christie did not en­vi­sion this as his cam­paign

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE dan.balz@wash­post.com

manch­ester, n.h.— This is not the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign Chris Christie imag­ined.

“Af­ter I got re­elected in 2013, my life was com­pletely dif­fer­ent then,” the New Jersey gover­nor said be­tween cam­paign stops here late last week. “Lots of things have hap­pened, both to me and the race. It’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

Christie doesn’t need to enu­mer­ate what hit him af­ter his re­elec­tion vic­tory: rev­e­la­tions about the man-made traf­fic jams on the Ge­orge Washington Bridge that brought scan­dal to his ad­min­is­tra­tion; the sud­den and ag­gres­sive en­try of Jeb Bush, who stole some of the es­tab­lish­ment donors Christie was count­ing on; the sur­prise rise of Don­ald Trump, the one can­di­date with a per­son­al­ity big­ger than Christie’s.

Af­ter that easy gu­ber­na­to­rial re­elec­tion two years ago, Christie was the near-con­sen­sus choice of many in the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment for the 2016 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, a politi­cian who could teach the GOP how to win in blue states. Time mag­a­zine fea­tured him on its cover with the not-so-sub­tle head­line “The Ele­phant in the Room.” Among the other cover head­lines were “What the Party Needs” and “How Chris Christie Can Win Over the GOP.”

To­day, the politi­cian who gained a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion by shout­ing down con­stituents at town-hall meet­ings in his home state strug­gles to be heard in a field of 15 can­di­dates. It is a con­test in which non­politi­cians have pushed the politi­cians down into sin­gle dig­its in the polls and, in Christie’s case, to the out­side flank of the de­bate stages.

That none of those things was an­tic­i­pated is iron­i­cally the life­line to which Christie now clings. He thinks that, if cir­cum­stances changed be­fore, they will change again. “It’s a good les­son,” he said. “That’s why noth­ing any­body’s say­ing about the race right now mat­ters, ei­ther.”

Christie ad­mits that the un­ex­pected shape of the Repub­li­can race has forced him to ad­just. The nor­mally im­pa­tient politi­cian said he is try­ing to learn to take a longer view: “I’ve had to con­tinue to tell my­self that pa­tience is a virtue.”

The other ad­just­ment is to ratchet up his anger to­ward Washington to match what seems to be the mood of the GOP elec­torate. Christie long has at­tacked Pres­i­dent Obama as a weak leader. Now Christie is scathingly dis­mis­sive of all of of­fi­cial Washington, in­clud­ing those in his own party.

He has likened the spec­ta­cle and tu­mult sur­round­ing the House speaker’s race to “Game of Thrones.”

“Only peo­ple in Washington, D.C., think any­body cares about this,” he told a group of re­porters af­ter a town hall at a fac­tory in Manch­ester on Thurs­day. “Who’s go­ing to get the ti­tle and who’s go­ing to sit in the spe­cial big chair and who’s go­ing to get the great ta­ble at the res­tau­rant in Washington. . . . What the Amer­i­can peo­ple want is a Congress that ac­tu­ally does some­thing.”

Christie thinks that long ex­po­sure to the vot­ers will even­tu­ally pay him div­i­dends. New Hamp­shire is his prin­ci­pal tar­get, although he said in the in­ter­view that he plans to com­pete hard in Iowa.

On Fri­day morn­ing, he held his 29th town-hall meet­ing in New Hamp­shire. The town halls are among the best shows in New Hamp­shire this fall, and Christie holds noth­ing back. He is typ­i­cally blunt, hu­mor­ous and of­ten windy.

At a pan­cake res­tau­rant in Hen­niker, he pushed back hard against a ques­tion about Repub­li­can ef­forts to de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood, said he’s the only can­di­date push­ing for gen­uine en­ti­tle­ment re­form, claimed his ex­pe­ri­ence in New Jersey fight­ing against and work­ing with Democrats has given him the tools to make Washington work, and, draw­ing a con­trast with some hard-lin­ers in his party, said that “com­pro­mise is not ca­pit­u­la­tion.”

Christie’s an­swers are long, dis­cur­sive and some­times repet­i­tive. The town-hall meet­ings can last two hours. But they play to good re­views.

Richard Broth­ers was at Christie’s town hall in Bel­mont on Thurs­day night. “I was a big [John] McCain guy back in 1999 and then in 2007,” he said. “Chris Christie’s the only per­son I’ve seen who does a town hall as well as McCain did a town hall. . . . This is how the New Hamp­shire pri­mary gets won.”

Christie has no ex­pla­na­tion other than voter anger for the rise of the out­siders: Trump, Ben Car­son and Carly Fio­r­ina.

He called Trump “a skilled com­mu­ni­ca­tor and celebrity” but added: “I don’t think his skills are best suited for the pres­i­dency.”

Car­son is amys­tery to Christie. Asked to ex­plain Car­son’s suc­cess, he said, “I think he’s a very nice man, but be­yond that I don’t have a the­ory at all.”

He ac­knowl­edged that Fio­r­ina has been ef­fec­tive in the de­bates, but he said: “I don’t think her record is any­thing to throw a party over. The share­hold­ers at Hewlett-Packard cer­tainly don’t think it is.”

Christie doubts that any of the three will be the nom­i­nee. “The state of the race now will not be the state of the race come Fe­bru­ary 1,” he said. “Those who re­ally know what they’re re­ally do­ing in gov­ern­ment and those who know where they want to take the coun­try specif­i­cally will rise to the top.”

Christie said he has long thought that his real com­pe­ti­tion is with Bush and with Sen. Marco Ru­bio (R-Fla.). “I think Jeb for ob­vi­ous rea­sons, be­cause of his name and his money,” he ex­plained. “And I think Marco be­cause I think he’s very tal­ented. He’s a very tal­ented com­mu­ni­ca­tor and politi­cian.”

But Christie sees Bush as a can­di­date who has more than once had to say, “What I re­ally meant was,” or “No, no, I mis­spoke.” He said Bush isn’t the only can­di­date who’s done that, but “he’s cer­tainly had the most.” He added, “Tal­ent is what will mat­ter, more than money, more than a name.”

Christie has high per­sonal re­gard for Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich. “He’s a good friend, and I like him a great deal,” he said. “I think in the long run, amongst the gover­nors, I’ll end up be­ing the choice. But it’s noth­ing against John.”

Look­ing at the most con­ser­va­tive side of the GOP field, Christie praised two can­di­dates: Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and for­mer Arkansas gover­nor Mike Huck­abee. “I think Ted Cruz is a strong can­di­date,” he said. “He’s bright and tal­ented. And I think Mike Huck­abee is tal­ented and shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated.”

I asked Christie where he thought he would be were it not for his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s scan­dal over the Ge­orge Washington Bridge— though he has never been im­pli­cated di­rectly into what hap­pened.

“I have no idea, but it cer­tainly didn’t help,” he said. “I think I’d be bet­ter off than I am­now, but I don’t know.”

But he in­sists the dam­age was not ir­repara­ble.

“I’m an ab­so­lutely cred­i­ble can­di­date for pres­i­dent of the United States who has sig­nif­i­cant amounts of sup­port around the coun­try from peo­ple inmy coun­try,” he said. Christie said that was hardly con­ven­tional wis­dom in early 2014.

Christie said noth­ing that has hap­pened so far will de­ter­mine the out­come of the nom­i­na­tion con­test. It is some­thing he has to be­lieve to keep slog­ging from town hall to town hall and as he makes his pitch for money. He would not re­veal how much he raised in the last quar­ter but said he will have the re­sources to keep go­ing.

Whether Christie fits the Repub­li­can Party to­day is an open ques­tion. Whether he can come back from the blows he has ab­sorbed is another. So, too, is whether he can per­suade GOP vot­ers that he is their best can­di­date to win a gen­eral elec­tion.

He doesn’t worry about all that or what the polls show now. If he hasn’t moved up in Jan­uary, he said, he will start to get ner­vous. For now, his undi­min­ished self-con­fi­dence keeps him go­ing. “I know when I stand on the stage look­ing at the oth­ers that no one has been more tested than I am,” he said. “So when it’s hot­ter, I’ll be even bet­ter.”

LORI M. NI­CHOLS/GLOUCES­TER COUNTY TIMES VIA AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie thinks long ex­po­sure to the vot­ers will even­tu­ally pay him po­lit­i­cal div­i­dends. “I’ve had to con­tinue to tellmy­self that pa­tience is a virtue,” he said.

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