GOFFSTOWN, NH – In a modest-sized room adorned with framed photographs of well-known politicians (including former President Donald Trump), New Hampshire voters heard potential 2024 contender Chris Christie out.
And Christie heard them out too, particularly when one attendee lamented that the former New Jersey governor had abandoned the anti-Trump crowd during the 2016 primary to deliver arguably the most important Trump endorsement of the cycle.
“I’m glad to hear you standing up against Trump,” the person said, but “when the results came in, you jumped ship on us.”
“Let me explain. Let me explain 2016 to you,” Christie responded. “I’ll be honest with you. We all made a strategic error … I stayed with him in 2016 because I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to be president.”
“None of us knew what kind of president he really would be or not,” Christie added.
“I did,” the attendee replied.
Monday night’s event at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, saw Christie spend nearly two hours talking to voters and answering questions ranging from his stance on Social Security to the drug crisis in America. It also underscored a reality for the man currently scraping the bottom of polls: After years as a loyal Trump ally, he’s going to have to establish a clear brand of his own, including with voters skeptical of his late conversion.
Christie’s medicine for that problem seems to be frankness. While other candidates have tried to build up their own image to start, Christie has tried to clearly separate himself from the other frontrunners by criticizing them early and often with his trademark New Jersey trash talk.
In Trump’s case, that means slamming his 2020 election fraud claims, which he told the audience had prompted him to finally break with the former president for good.
Christie also took swipes at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, mocking his description of the Ukraine war as a “territorial dispute” and arguing that the party won’t succeed with candidates who are trying “to be Trump-like.”
“Let me tell you, everybody, what a territorial dispute is. It’s when you get your property survey, and you find out that your neighbor’s fence is six inches on your property. That’s a territorial dispute. When you roll tanks and artillery into a free country in an attempt to take their land and their lives by force: That is authoritarian aggression,” Christie said. “Someone please place a wake up call to Tallahassee.”
For some voters, that bluntness is a plus.
“He says it like it is. You know, there’s no hidden agenda,” Jim MacEachern, chairman of the Derry Republican Party in New Hampshire and sitting city council member, said. Other potential voters echoed the sentiment: “He’s down to earth,” one Democrat attendee declared. “It was very real,” another added.
Christie’s just getting started in New Hampshire, as well: His team tells Semafor they’re in the midst of planning a second trip in April. And while Christie isn’t a proven vote-getter there yet, he has proven he can wreck a candidate who gets in his way in the state (something he brought up on Monday), making him an unpredictable force.