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Chris Christie Looks to John Mccain’s 2008 Presidential Primary Bid As Model for His Campaign


Chris Christie is staking his presidential campaign on New Hampshire, the state that upended politics when it sided with Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential primary.

Facing steep odds, the former New Jersey governor and his allies have adopted a strategy similar to the one used by John McCain, the late Arizona senator who won New Hampshire twice during each of his two presidential primary campaigns and captured the Republican nomination with his 2008 campaign.

At around this point in the race in 2007, McCain was polling third in New Hampshire, trailing both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, and as Christie recalls, his prospects looked dim.

“John McCain, in 2008, came to this state. They said his campaign was dead, he lost Iowa, they said there was no chance he could win. He won New Hampshire and became the nominee,” Christie told a room of voters in New Hampshire earlier this month. “If I win this primary, I’m gonna be the nominee. If I’m the nominee, I will beat Joe Biden, and then we’re gonna go to a whole new era in our politics in this country.”

But 15 years since New Hampshire boosted McCain’s presidential ambitions, the dynamics in the influential political proving ground have changed. Right now, Trump appears primed to win the state’s primary once again.

“Just focusing on New Hampshire, I think, could be a mistake,” said Karen Testerman, chair of the Merrimack County GOP who has not endorsed in the primary. “Because I do think that…you have to start looking ahead with the hope of gaining momentum. In a way, if that’s all you’re focusing on, then it sort of sends a message, well, I really don’t know if I can be successful at this.”

Recent New Hampshire polls show Christie trailing former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who now has the support of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. And both are lagging far behind Trump, leading some anti-Trump Republicans to call on Christie to drop out of the race to boost Haley’s prospects.

GOP donor Eric Levine, who supported South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott until he exited the presidential race and is now backing Haley, said, “If [Christie] truly wants to stop Trump, he should get out and endorse Haley. Otherwise he’s just another self-important gasbag.”

It is unclear how many of Christie’s supporters would go to Haley if he leaves the race. And even if a significant portion were to back Haley, whether it would be enough to put her ahead of Trump is far from clear.

Christie maintains that he has no plans to drop out. Bobbie Kilberg, a longtime GOP donor and fundraiser who is backing Christie, said none of Christie’s donors have called her to suggest he leave the race to consolidate support behind Haley. Kilberg, who also served as a leading member of McCain’s ’08 National Finance Committee, said the Arizona senator “believed that the strength of his ideas would carry the day and that it was worth the journey.” Like McCain, Christie also believes his ideas will prevail.

Christie has focused most of his time on campaigning in counties President Biden won in 2020 including Hillsborough, Rockingham, Merrimack, and to a lesser degree, Cheshire. He has also been to Belknap twice, a county Trump won in 2020.

J.P. Marzullo, a delegate for Christie in New Hampshire said, the tide changed for McCain when he started campaigning throughout the state going to “every small venue he could.” “Like McCain [Christie] will speak to anyone,” Marzullo said, adding, “when they ask him a tough question, he answers it.”

In a dwindling field of Republican presidential candidates, Christie has been the only one willing to challenge Trump in a meaningful and consistent way that acknowledges the unprecedented nature of this election. Despite Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss and stirring the mob of his supporters who went on to attack the U.S. Capitol, the former president remains the GOP frontrunner less than two months out from the New Hampshire primary. Trump is facing criminal charges tied to his attempts to overturn the last presidential election, among other cases.

Mike DuHaime, a key Christie adviser, said some of the other Trump challengers risk undermining themselves with voters in New Hampshire because of how much voters respect “straight talk.”

“I don’t think you can go from empowering [Trump] all year long because you’re afraid to offend his voters to attacking him,” DuHaime said.

The ability for undeclared voters in New Hampshire, commonly called independents, to vote in the Republican primary may help Christie’s case as he essentially ignores the Iowa caucuses in favor of the first-in-the nation primary state. The rest of the viable GOP primary field, from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to Haley and Ohio entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, are all trying to make a statement in the first caucus state, while also having spent some of their time in New Hampshire.

Christie’s directness in answering questions — a trait he shares with McCain, whose campaign bus was famously called “The Straight Talk Express” — may yet serve him well in New Hampshire, says Wayne MacDonald, a Christie ally who was a New Hampshire vice chair for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. “That’s something independents like because independents are independents for a reason.”

Even while his campaign claims Christie has a path to the nomination beyond New Hampshire, it is clear that the fate of Christie’s presidential ambitions hinges on a strong performance in the state’s Jan. 23 primary.

Rebecca Weidner, of Rindge, New Hampshire, who voted for McCain, said she values Christie’s less divisive politics.

“We need somebody who’s going to be more moderate, somebody that people that are going to lean towards the Democratic ticket will see a Republican who is seemingly more willing to meet in the middle and not keep this party divide happening that’s handicapped the country,” Weidner said.

While McCain’s New Hampshire victories were central to his two presidential campaigns, the state also gave Trump his first primary win in 2016, with 35% of the GOP primary vote in a crowded field. Trump’s base in the state remains strong, but the field of viable contenders is smaller.

Andrew Provencher, a New Hampshire-based consultant who worked on McCain’s 2008 campaign, as well as Jon Huntsman’s bid for the White House during the 2012 election cycle, thinks it in fact may be Trump who wins McCain’s voters, replacing straight talk with populism.

“Christie is probably trying to kind of capture that wave,” Provencher said. “I think that a sliver of that honesty has been taken by President Trump more than anyone. There’s that populist message of folks getting it like it is, and hearing it straight from the source that folks always found appealing about John McCain.”

Even though Trump’s version of straight talk may include some falsehoods, Christie may be finding that cutting through the noise is a difficult task, especially when Trump is not participating in any of the GOP primary debates, given his massive polling lead.

Christie’s past is another hurdle. After a poor showing in New Hampshire during his first presidential run in 2016, Christie endorsed Trump and backed him again in the 2020 election. The former governor doesn’t shy away from those facts, but the turnabout sows doubt with some voters about his motivations.

Gregg Hough, GOP chair for Belknap, a Republican-leaning county in New Hampshire that voted for Trump in 2020, says of Christie’s “moderate” positions and his attacks on Trump that it “makes the Republican base question whether or not he’s truly on their page or whether he’s just doing it for his own further advancement.”

Source: CBS News

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