Boston Herald

Chris Christie is in it to win it — and have a good time

- By Michael Graham Michael Graham is managing editor at InsideSour­

A Republican from the northeast, telling jokes, doing impression­s, and even working a little blue. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a Donald Trump campaign event.

Except that Tuesday night at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, the jokes were on him.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie may be the longest of long shots to win the GOP presidenti­al nomination, but based on his last two appearance­s in New Hampshire (both town halls at the NHIOP), he’s decided that, wherever this campaign winds up, he’s going to have a good time getting there. Mostly at Trump’s expense. For example, when a member of the audience asked Christie whether, if elected president, he’d be willing to pardon Trump, he gave a serious and thorough answer to the question (spoiler alert: probably not) before adding that the question was moot.

“By accepting the pardon, the person must acknowledg­e their guilt. And that’s why I’m completely in the clear,” Christie said as the crowd laughed. “That will never happen.”

Christie, 60, began with a somewhat stilted, overly worked set piece about the choice between “big and small,” how petty politics and divisive leaders were making America a smaller place. “At every pivotal moment in our history, there was a choice between small and big — and America became the most different, the most successful, the most fabulous light for the rest of the world in history because we always picked big,” Christie said.

It seemed like a way to make an asset of Christie’s weight — a setup for “Go Big! Vote Christie 2024,” but the pitch never came.

But once he began taking questions from the crowd, Christie was loose and relaxed as he worked the packed room without notes or a script. A throng of national media was on hand, a massive mismatch between press interest and candidate potential.

Christie used the NHIOP forum to announce formally he’s seeking the GOP nomination. But he also used it to address the fundamenta­l question many New Hampshire GOP activists — who will be key to helping him build a campaign — have about his candidacy: Is he trying to win or merely play the role of political kamikaze targeting Trump?

“How are those two things mutually exclusive?” Christie said. “The guy’s ahead in the polls. Who am I supposed to be worried about — Nikki Haley?”

In Christie’s view, all the talk about lanes is pundit puffery. “There is one lane, and he’s in the front of it. And if you want to win, you better go right through him.”

“The reason I’m going after Trump is twofold. One, he deserves it. Two, it’s the way to win.”

In reality, “going through Trump” isn’t the only way to win. Targeting Trump and alienating many of the 79 million Americans who voted for him — including the majority of New Hampshire Republican­s — is one of the least likely ways to win.

Polls show that most Republican­s support Trump and aren’t interested in hearing him being attacked. To many GOP primary voters, people who criticize Trump sound like Democrats. From a pragmatic political standpoint, there’s a strong argument in favor of the Ron DeSantis approach: Fight back when Trump attacks, but don’t do anything to alienate Trump loyalists — like Christie doing his impression of Trump promising to build the wall (“I’m going to build the most amazing wonderful wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it”) and mocking his failure.

It was funny, but how does it win GOP primary votes?

A 15-year-old in the NHIOP audience picked up on the paradox. He asked Christie how he planned to win over Trump voters “when you don’t seem to be appealing to the larger (group of) Republican voters?”

“I’m glad you’re 15 so you can’t vote,” Christie joked. But his question is serious, and the governor never gave a fully satisfying answer. “The way I’m going to appeal to any voter in New Hampshire is to make the case I can make,” Christie said. “I don’t have a specific strategy. I’m just going to be myself.”

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