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Drew Cline: Chris Christie is the type of candidate who can win NH

April 16. 2015 12:04AM

ON JAN. 8, 2012, Chris Christie stumped with Mitt Romney in Exeter. An Occupy protester shouted “Christie kills jobs,” as Christie spoke.

“Really? Something may go down tonight but it’s not going to be jobs, sweetheart,” he responded.

The Republican crowd went nuts. Christie gave the protesters “an intellectual beat-down,” one attendee told FOX News. “I think Christie is just the right amount of punch.”

Primary watchers give Christie little chance of winning New Hampshire if he decides to run for President this year. He is too low in the polls, they say. He has waited too long, they say. They ignore the one advantage Christie alone would possess. He is Chris Christie.

Journalists and professional political consultants parse the details of every policy position, while voters size up candidates in a more personal way. New Hampshire Republicans react well to bold candidates with strong personalities — John McCain, Pat Buchanan, Ronald Reagan — even if they disagree with those candidates on some issues. New Hampshire is almost tailor-made for Christie, who takes big political risks and can work a room like no other 2016 hopeful. That he has to win New Hampshire gives him all the more incentive to give the state the full Christie.

When he stumped for Romney in 2012, the chatter among Republicans was that the surrogate outshone the nominee. That was the case again last year when Christie made four visits on behalf of gubernatorial nominee Walt Havenstein. When Christie is in the room, all eyes turn to him. He is a carousel placed in the center of the banquet hall of a non-descript chain hotel.

As Christie lit up a capacity crowd at a town hall meeting in Londonderry on Wednesday, drawing many rounds of applause, the national political website Political Wire posted a headline calling him a “dead man walking in New Hampshire.” The same was said about John McCain in 2007. He did not lead a single poll from June 5 to Dec. 31, 2007. He beat Romney by 5.5 points. He did it by holding dozens of town hall meetings across the state, talking directly to voters and gaining voters’ trust — which is exactly what Christie intends to do.

Supposedly Christie is too far down in the polls to come back. The Real Clear Politics average of New Hampshire polls on Wednesday morning had Christie fourth in New Hampshire, ahead of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. That is no more insurmountable than a carnival pony.

The polls at this point mean next to nothing. Christie can do well in New Hampshire, even win, if he invests enough time here and gets some breaks. The primary is very much about performance, and some of the people leading in the polls now are not as tested as Christie is at town hall meetings, nor do they convey the confidence he does on the stump.

Christie has immense natural talent (as do Marco Rubio and Scott Walker), but also weaknesses. His logo is “tell it like it is.” He said in Londonderry, “I think what the people are starving for is a President who is strong and will lead... People don’t agree with a lot of the things I do or say, yet 61 percent of them voted to re-elect me.” And yet he too has shifted positions.

He is weak on guns, and lately he has moved away from his previous support of banning “semiautomatic assault weapons.” He does not have a really good answer for why his views have shifted. He seems to be in favor of subsidizing domestic energy companies. He rambles enough that he can easily be accused of being deliberately vague. Sometimes he is deliberately vague. Asked about tax reform twice this week, he dodged the question both times, admitting that he has yet to formulate a detailed policy.

If your brand is that of a straight shooter, you cannot give people reason to believe you are a position-shifting politician.

Then there are the New Jersey state budget and “bridgegate.”

Yet in Londonderry on Wednesday, Christie shone. He called himself “someone who’s willing to speak their mind... That’s who I am, and that’s who I’ll always be.”

He gave that general impression. As importantly, he was funny, disarming, emotionally compelling. Retail politics in New Hampshire can be more about making that emotional connection with voters than about winning them over with policy specifics. Christie is excellent at connecting and conveying the image of a strong leader. It might not be enough for him, but to write him off now would be foolish.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewhampshire.


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