What can Chris Christie possibly say in the third hour of a town hall meeting during his second campaign for president to win over people who weren’t already planning to vote for him?
A friendly audience of 125 people greeted Christie Tuesday night at the old North Hampton town hall for an event that went on for over two hours. Although the New Hampshire primary on which Christie has staked his campaign is now just four months away, Christie approached the evening like a man with all the time in the world. After 25 minutes of opening remarks in which he criticized Donald Trump and defended U.S. support for Ukraine, Christie spoke for nearly two hours during Q&A. His answers seemed to grow longer as the night continued.
His very good responses about education, health care, and parents’ rights were beside the point. Voters aren’t assessing Christie on his policy positions or his record as governor of New Jersey.
Christie is the only Republican candidate running directly against Donald Trump. For the “Never Trump” and “Not Again Trump” segments of primary voters, that’s good enough for them.
The questions remain: Are there enough of them, and can Christie – himself a convert to the stop Trump cause – create more?
In stark contrast with the rest of the field who don’t mention other candidates, pretend Trump isn’t the central fact of this election, and won’t risk offending a single person who voted for Trump before, Christie did all three. The majority of his opening comments were about why he is running against Trump. Then Christie worked contrasts with Trump into many of his responses to questions.
Christie has known or observed many presidents, he said. “Every one of them was humbled by the job. All of them except Donald. He was made worse by the job. He was made worse by the power.” When a questioner asked Christie whether he thinks Trump has “a good heart,” Christie responded by saying, “I think he used to. Doesn’t anymore. All he cares about is himself…. Power corrupted him. It made him an angry and bitter man.”
Pure Never Trumpers might quibble with the notion that the office changed the man. Christie freely acknowledges that he supported and worked for Trump. The break came, Christie says, when Trump wouldn’t accept that he was defeated for reelection.
Recounting the moment in the first debate in which six fellow candidates indicated they would support Trump as nominee even if he were convicted of a crime, Christie joked that the Founders would have made that a disqualification for office in the Constitution had it occurred to them such a candidate could ever emerge. Christie said he was proud to have not raised his hand in response to that question – a comment that drew perhaps the biggest applause of the night.
Christie was characteristically blunt in talking about President Joe Biden, too. Citing reports – since debunked – that Biden had fallen asleep during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Christie said, “He’s not up to the job. If he’s this tired now, where will he be five years from now?”
Often, Christie linked Trump and Biden together. It’s obvious that Hunter Biden traded on his family name for sweet business deals. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner did the same to an even greater degree, Christie pointed out. One cannot point at Hunter Biden’s corruption and look the other way when it involves Trump’s kids.
Christie called out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by name on multiple occasions, labeling him a big government conservative and criticizing him for using government in ways Republicans used to criticize Democrats for doing. He criticized Vivek Ramaswamy by name as well.
Christie’s considerable experience in town hall settings was on display. When a questioner asked Christie about his involvement in Bridgegate, Christie made sure the audience noticed the man was holding up his phone to film Christie’s response and that it was an obvious set-up. Then the Republican gave his answer – Christie had nothing to do with it but was accountable for the actions of people who worked for him.
The last question of the night may have elicited Christie’s most spontaneous comments. Asked whether he had experienced an “ah-ha” moment on the campaign trail when he learned something from the voters he met, Christie said, “People are more despondent than I thought they were. They are more desperate about change than I thought they were.” They watched four years of Trump and three years of Biden and think, “Oh God, can’t we do better?”
Christie concluded by recounting a story about a woman in her 80s who approached him in Manchester and whispered in his ear, “I don’t like Trump, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Why are you whispering?” Christie said he told her.
People who want to move on from Trump need to stop whispering.