How Chris Christie Can Win Conservatives and the Nomination

How Chris Christie Can Win Conservatives and the Nomination

© Dominick Reuter / Reuters

The moment on stage at the CNN/Salem Media Group debate* provided a perfect set-up for Chris Christie. The discussion of the changes to NSA intelligence gathering in the USA Freedom Act directly related to the overwhelming focus on national security in the final Republican presidential debate in 2015.

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino two weeks earlier had raised all sorts of questions as to whether counterterrorism and Homeland Security officials had missed red flags to the true intent of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Three Senators on stage took very different approaches to surveillance in the war on terror, and the debate between them may have been the most substantive and meaningful exchange during the event. But it ventured into arcane haggling over legislative language rather than outcomes.

Related: Can Chris Christie Turn Terrorism Fears into Votes?

That is where Christie pounced. Staring directly into the camera, the governor from New Jersey said, “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.”

Christie then reminded viewers, not for the first nor for the last time that the legislators on stage did not have to assume personal responsibility for securing the safety of constituents. “They continue to debate about this bill and in the subcommittee,” Christie argued, and “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?”

Other governors have made the executive-experience argument in and out of debates, including some who have since departed the field. Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina attempted to follow Christie’s lead in the Tuesday night debate to add their own resumes into the mix. Christie had even used a similar set-up in an earlier debate to lament the bickering between candidates on stage at the expense of real voter concerns, when he rebuked Fiorina and Donald Trump for arguing over the finer points of Fiorina’s stewardship of Hewlett Packard.

Related: Trump Rises on a Perfect Storm of Public Fear

This moment captured the essence of the debate perfectly, however. A new Washington Post/ABC poll shows confidence ebbing in the Barack Obama administration to protect the nation from terrorist attack. A majority of 56 percent now says they have less confidence in the government stopping a large-scale terrorist attack – and 77 percent worry more now that the US is not ready to stop “a lone-wolf attack.” This atmosphere of frustration and disillusion prompted the national-security focus of the debate.

Christie leveraged the opportunity into a platform that highlights his executive experience, specifically on terrorism. Christie reminded viewers that his administration “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…. 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.”

So Christie seized the moment. Can he run with it? That question becomes complicated by his current lack of traction in national polling, but his single-state strategy may pay off.

Related: Chris Christie Scolds Obama on Climate Change

At one point, Christie had been a favorite of conservatives for his blunt, no-apologies style and aggressive approach to reform in New Jersey. He lost favor by figuratively embracing a more moderate approach on gun rights, and by literally embracing Barack Obama the week before the 2012 election during Hurricane Sandy. Christie has emphasized a more pragmatic approach to governance – a necessity for a governor whose legislature is controlled by the opposing party – that rankles an anti-establishment electorate already inclined to reject current party leadership.

Yet 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.

Related: Christie, Seen as Alternative to Trump, Wins Coveted Endorsement

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.

*The author is employed by Salem Media Group through