Can Christie Talk His Way Back to the Top of the GOP Pack?
Policy + Politics

Can Christie Talk His Way Back to the Top of the GOP Pack?

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor will announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination at 11 a.m. in the gymnasium of his alma mater, Livingston High School. But he’ll do so as a long-shot candidate for the GOP’s nod, not the front-runner he looked like 18 months ago. 

A combination of factors — including the scandal surrounding an aide’s decision to shut down a New Jersey town’s access to a major bridge as political payback, his state’s suffering a credit downgrade and Christie’s poor standing among voters in New Jersey — have combined to knock the governor’s down into also-ran status in the ever-widening GOP field. 

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How does Christie get his mojo back? Can he? It’s possible, say close observers of political campaigns, but it won’t be easy. It starts, for Christie, with fighting his way onto the stage for the Republican primary debates that start next month. 

“He can’t get shut out of the debates,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “His ability to speak, to talk to a crowd, is his most effective tool. He has to remind people of why they made him a front-runner in the first place, and if he doesn’t get on a debate stage, he’s dead in the water.” 

Unfortunately for Christie, a spot on the stage at the first debate in August is far from assured. Fox News will host the debate and, with the tacit consent of the Republican National Committee, has said that it will limit the field to 10 candidates. The selection will be based in large part on how candidates are performing in public opinion polls. 

Fox hasn’t revealed what polls it will rely on when it issues debate invitations, but the Real Clear Politics poll average doesn’t bode well for Christie. As of Monday, he was right on the bubble, polling ninth in a field of 15, and his numbers have been on a southward trajectory for a year and a half. 

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Worse yet, in the most recent national poll, conducted by Fox News, Christie was locked in a four-way tie for 11th place with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. 

If Christie is to break out of the field, he has to play to his strengths, and according to Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, his biggest strength is public appearances. 

“Christie’s greatest gift is his speaking skill: He might be the best orator on the GOP side, with perhaps the exception of [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio,” said Kondik. “It’s not impossible that simply by hitting the trail hard, particularly in New Hampshire, he can improve his standing by exercising his rather considerable political talents.” 

O’Connell agreed that there is a path for Christie, if a narrow one. “He knows his strengths. He is the best speaker on the stump of everyone in the field. What he has to do is find a way to connect with people any way possible.” 

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Kondik points out there is still another hurdle for the New Jersey governor to overcome, and it has to do with connecting with the voters. Christie is relatively unpopular with the people whose vote he is seeking. 

“His favorability numbers on the GOP side are amongst the weakest of any candidates, so he has a stern challenge,” Kondik said. 

Christie has the dubious distinction of being the GOP candidate with the worst “unfavorable” numbers within the party. Several candidates, including the current front-runner, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are upside down — meaning that more people report negative feelings toward him than do positive. But compared to Christie, even real estate mogul Donald Trump’s numbers look good. 

In a national poll of Republican primary voters released earlier this month, 49 percent reported an unfavorable view of Christie, compared to only 43 percent with an unfavorable view of Trump. The same poll found that only 26 percent reported a favorable view of Christie, while 38 percent saw Trump favorably. 

Christie has time, though it may be limited, to turn things around. The task begins today in Livingston. It is, says Kondik, “easy to imagine that Christie gives a well-received speech.” 

The question for Christie is whether it will be enough. 

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