If Chris Christie’s moment arrived in the 2016 Republican presidential primary race, it took its sweet time getting here. The confluence of events that have made terrorism and national security the top issues in the GOP contest, and also have Americans issuing a polling vote of no confidence, has refocused voters on the need to have a steady hand as the next Commander in Chief, at least to some extent. Chris Christie took advantage of an increasingly arcane argument between three Senators on stage to dramatically point out that need, and his ability to do the job on day one (transcript via CNN):
BASH: Listening to this, you talked — you heard Senator Paul, Senator Cruz talk about how important it is to protect Americans’ privacy, even in a time of grave danger. Why — what’s wrong with that?
CHRISTIE: Listen, I want to talk to the audience at home for a second. If your eyes are glazing over like mine, this is what it’s like to be on the floor of the United States Senate. I mean, endless debates about how many angels on the head of a pin from people who’ve never had to make a consequential decision in an executive position.
The fact is, for seven years, I had to make these decisions after 9/11, make a decision about how to proceed forward with an investigation or how to pull back, whether you use certain actionable intelligence or whether not to. And yet they continue to debate about this bill and in the subcommittee and what — nobody in America cares about that.
What they care about is, are we going to have a president who actually knows what they’re doing to make these decisions? And for the seven years afterwards, New Jersey was threatened like no other region in this country and what we did was we took action within the constitution to make sure that law enforcement had all the information they needed.
We prosecuted two of the biggest terrorism cases in the world and stopped Fort Dix from being attacked by six American radicalized Muslims from a Mosque in New Jersey because we worked with the Muslim American community to get intelligence and we used the Patriot Act to get other intelligence to make sure we did those cases. This is the difference between actually been a federal prosecutor, actually doing something, and not just spending your life as one of hundred debating it.
Let’s talk about how we do this, not about which bill, which one these guys like more. The American people don’t care about that.
At least for now, Christie’s right. A year ago, people figured that Rand Paul would be leading a vast libertarian movement that cares very much about the minutiae of bills like the USA Freedom Act, but Paul barely registers in polling anywhere now. The outsider voters have gone instead to Donald Trump and Ben Carson, whose appeal comes in part because of their presumed executive qualities.
Christie has those qualities, and has exercised them in the context of counterterrorism as both governor and US Attorney. Until now, the concern over national security has been subordinate to the anti-establishment impulse in both parties, but especially among Republicans. That’s one reason why Christie — who at one time had conservatives cheering his blunt and assertive style — has had to settle in on a one-state strategy:
His investment in New Hampshire, the state that’s pivotal to his chances of winning the nomination, finally seems to be paying off: Powered by his poll numbers there, Christie returned to the main stage of the Republican presidential debate on Tuesday where his forceful performance quickly started trending on Twitter.
But there’s one glaring problem: Christie has almost no campaign infrastructure beyond the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Most of the campaign’s time and resources have been devoted to New Hampshire, with Iowa a distant second. The third state on the primary calendar, South Carolina, trails far behind, whether measured in terms of staffing or time spent there.
As of last week, Christie had visited New Hampshire 50 times, held 36 town halls there and more than 112 events in total. In Iowa, a town hall in Mason City last week was his 11th in 22 days of campaigning. On Saturday, he begins a three-day swing through New Hampshire where the governor will have eight more meet-and-greets and town halls.
By comparison, Christie has spent a total of just six days in South Carolina.
Had the issue of national security had become more acute early in 2015, there might have been too many choices for voters to do Christie any good. Rick Perry might have been the most obvious choice, for instance, or it could have boosted Jeb Bush’s credibility when it could have done him some good. Bush is too far gone in this race to benefit from it now, and besides, the Bush brand isn’t exactly a selling point, even with George W’s track record of success after 9/11 on preventing attacks.
At the moment, though, the only solid option for people who see a need for a tested executive on nat-sec and counterterrorism as their highest priority is Christie. In my column for The Fiscal Times, I argue that he’s been given a golden opportunity to seize the moment:
Christie’s strategy over the past few months has focused on New Hampshire almost exclusively. While he polls within the margins of error nationally, Christie now challenges for second place in the Granite State and their first-in-the-nation primary, thanks to considerable time and organizational effort spent in the state. Even without the raised stakes in national security, Christie’s pragmatic approach to governance will appeal to New Hampshire voters.
Pragmatism was a continuing theme among voters I interviewed for my upcoming book on the 2016 general election, GOING RED, which will be published next April. That is also part of Trump’s appeal there as well–they want a departure from the red/blue ideological debate that has paralyzed Washington D.C. and are seeking a leader to rise above it.
Toss in the heightened concerns over terrorism and counter-terror efforts, and Christie becomes a more appealing choice than real-estate mogul Donald Trump or the first-term Senators Cruz and Rubio in the race. If national security continues to dominate the Republican primary, Christie may be able to leverage that security expertise into a win in New Hampshire. He may not have the same draw for millennial voters and Hispanics as Rubio or Cruz, but he’s younger and more experienced than either Trump or Hillary Clinton, and has a reputation as a fighter.
That outcome relies on a lot of ifs, of course. Presidential elections usually revert to pocketbook economics. Even apart from Trump, Rubio and Cruz have more traction nationally, and are roughly equal to Christie in New Hampshire. The anti-establishment pull within the Republican primary electorate will not ebb away entirely, and will not entirely forget Christie’s heterodoxies either. Christie has to find a way to strike while the iron is hot, an ability that has not yet been demonstrated. But the moment and his response to it show that the GOP has another option, and perhaps a real contender. The more that voters focus on national security, the better Christie may look to many of them.
There’s another potential opportunity, too. At some point, Bush’s donors will have to throw in the towel, and it’s been presumed that most of them will migrate to Marco Rubio, and some to Ted Cruz. Some of them may see Christie as more in line with their focus on executive experience, and especially on nat-sec policy. Assuming that Bush’s donors pull the plug before New Hampshire, it’s certainly possible that they may line up for Christie and provide him the boost in organization there and in South Carolina he’d need to make a serious run at the nomination. That may be a more likely migration scenario than toward Rubio or Cruz, but only if Christie can seize the moment — and the moment lasts.