Christie’s Big Bet: ‘If I Don’t Do Well in New Hampshire, Then I’ll Leave’

In his against-all-odds pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey has campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire: More than 90 percent of his events since February have been in the Granite State, according to a New York Times analysis.

To hear Mr. Christie tell it, New Hampshire is his do-or-die state. If he doesn’t perform well here, that will probably be it.

“I can’t see myself leaving the race under any circumstances before New Hampshire,” he said in an interview. “If I don’t do well in New Hampshire, then I’ll leave.”

Much as he did during his White House bid in 2016, Mr. Christie is betting on the independent streak of New Hampshire voters to validate his candidacy and catapult him into contention. (Mr. Christie ultimately finished sixth in New Hampshire that year and dropped out a day later.)

But while he blended into the crowd in the 2016 Republican primary contest, Mr. Christie occupies a nearly solitary position in this race: as the candidate offering the harshest criticisms of the runaway front-runner, former President Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Christie’s central pitch to Republicans in New Hampshire is that they must vote with a sense of responsibility and urgency, because defeating Mr. Trump in the first-in-the-nation primary may be the only way to halt his march to the nomination.

“The future of this country is going to be determined here,” Mr. Christie told a crowd this week at a local brewery, clutching an I.P.A. “If Donald Trump wins here, he will be our nominee. Everything that happens after that is going to be on our party and on our country. It’s up to you.”

Though Mr. Christie has improved in recent polls, he still trails Mr. Trump in New Hampshire by double digits, and by much more in national polls and surveys of Iowa, the first nominating state.

Mr. Christie signed autographs for supporters at an event on Monday in Rye, N.H.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

Yet in the interview, Mr. Christie said he still saw a path in New Hampshire. He pointed to numerous past candidates who “broke late” in the state, including Senator John McCain of Arizona during his 2000 campaign. Mr. Christie noted that Mr. McCain, who ended up winning New Hampshire, had driven around the state “basically riding around in a Suburban with two aides.”

Mr. Christie is apparently trying to emulate that style. This week, he cruised around New Hampshire with only a driver and two staff members. His campaign does not have staff members on the ground in New Hampshire, and in all, he has only 11 staff members on the payroll, according to his campaign.

In the trip to New Hampshire, his first since the opening Republican primary debate last month, Mr. Christie ratcheted up his criticisms of the former president.

He now goes so far as to liken Mr. Trump to an autocratic leader, arguing that his conduct is beneath the office of the presidency. Mr. Christie tiptoes toward predicting how the former president’s criminal indictments will unfold, declaring that the country cannot have a “convicted felon” as its leader. And he needles Mr. Trump with subtle jabs at his idiosyncratic tendencies, taunting the former president for his love of cable television and apparent preference for well-done hamburgers.

But despite his willingness to take on Mr. Trump, Mr. Christie has been denied his best shot at confronting the former president directly on the debate stage. Mr. Trump skipped the first debate and seems unlikely to attend the second one, which will be held in California at the end of the month.

Mr. Christie, who has qualified for the second debate, said he had been drawing up contingency plans.

“I’m not going to let him get away with being a coward and running away,” Mr. Christie said in the interview. “It could be meeting him out in front of his event as he’s making his way in. It could be confronting him on his way out. It could be actually going to the event. It could be a whole bunch of options that we’re going to try. I’m not going to tell them exactly which one I’m going to do, because then he would have his staff prepared for it and try to stop me.”

Tell It Like It Is PAC, the super PAC supporting Mr. Christie’s bid, latched onto the New Hampshire-or-bust approach early on. Ninety-six percent of the roughly $1 million the group has spent on radio and television advertising has been in New Hampshire markets, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm.

Mr. Christie’s events grew more crowded as his swing through New Hampshire progressed, culminating with more than 150 people packed in a gym without air-conditioning in Bedford. Audiences at his events tended to applaud his anti-Trump broadsides.

Mr. Christie was greeted with applause at an event in a crowded gymnasium in Bedford, N.H.Credit…Sophie Park for The New York Times

His voters are holding out hope, but they acknowledge his path is tough.

“You have to believe he’s got a chance,” said Irene Bonner, 75, of Meredith, N.H., who said she was normally apolitical but had been inspired to come to an event by Mr. Christie’s tough talk against Mr. Trump.

“The party is so completely blinded by Trump, it just boggles my mind,” said John Bonner, her husband. “After everything’s gone down and the things he’s said and done. But at least Christie is speaking up.” He added, “The rest of them really aren’t.”

If Mr. Trump does emerge as the nominee, Mr. Christie said, he will not back off in his criticism.

“I can’t imagine that I’ll ever keep quiet,” he said in the interview. “I don’t think it’s in my personality, so I’ll continue to say what I believe is the truth.”

He added: “But I’ll also be critical of Joe Biden, I’m certain, because I have been since he became president, and I suspect he is not going to do some sort of miraculous turnaround that’s going to win my support. So I think I probably have difficult things to say about both of them if I was not the nominee.”

Asked if he would make an endorsement in a Trump-Biden rematch, the rarely pithy Mr. Christie was succinct: “No.”

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