KEENE, New Hampshire—If Chris Christie had a microphone to drop, he would have dropped it.
“I am the viable Trump alternative,” the former New Jersey governor and not-quite-yet 2024 GOP presidential candidate told The Daily Beast, swiveling on his heel and promptly ending the interview to go work the room at the Keene Country Club Friday night.
That was his answer when asked if he’d thought at all about a repeat of his iconic 2016 exit from the Granite State, where he neutered Marco Rubio’s campaign in a viral debate takedown before finishing in sixth place, subsequently becoming the first 2016 candidate to endorse Donald Trump.
Christie insisted he no longer holds the position that he would still vote for Donald Trump, were the former president to become the GOP nominee for the third consecutive cycle.
But he also told a 15-year-old at a town hall in Henniker the night before that, given everything he now knows about Trump, he would still vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical rematch. (He tried to clean up those comments Friday night to The Daily Beast, though his explanation still doesn’t quite make sense.)
His best answer on the Trump question—trying to appeal to anti-Trump Republicans while still not ostracizing Republicans—is that he simply wouldn’t vote if Trump were the GOP nominee, as he told The Atlantic last week.
But the toughest question Christie has to answer is how, exactly, he could actually be the Republican nominee.
After polling no higher than 3 percent in any of the surveys of the prospective 2024 field thus far, and after finishing in sixth place the last time he went toe-to-toe with Trump, Christie seems to be trying to answer that question himself before he officially jumps into the race. His heart seems to want him to run, but his head doesn’t sound settled.
Christie seems to be leaning toward jumping in, posing and answering questions that bolster his ability to take down Trump. Like whether he could actually be a credible messenger to the MAGA base.
The former governor asserts his proximity to Trump over the 2016 transition and both presidential campaigns—where he likes to remind people he played Clinton and Biden in debate prep—is what makes him the only one who can somehow convince a statistically significant portion of the MAGA base that they’re wrong about the man they’ve doubled and tripled down on defending for almost 10 years. In his mind, at least.
“I think we’ll lose if Trump’s a nominee. That’s why I intend to be the nominee,” Christie told The Daily Beast.
Just over an hour before he rolled up to the country club, accompanied by a pair of staffers and his wife Mary Pat, Christie was settling into his element.
Speaking before a crowd of 20 old guard Republicans on a pleasant spring day in an immaculately manicured backyard in West Keene, Christie was about to have the donors and power brokers in the palm of his hand.
Flanked by a yet-to-be opened pool and an expansive charcuterie board, he wore a charcoal gray suit and a pink shirt, shifting into his signature pensive lean and straight-talk speaking cadence.
But Christie struggled to find his cadence, repeatedly interrupted by a wheaten terrier named Phoebe who didn’t seem to want to hear from Christie. Eventually, he found his groove, and fell into what appeared to be an already well-practiced stump speech. He warned of an emboldened China and issued a morbid prediction that he’s already made a standard part of his stump speech—that a second Biden term would amount to a Kamala Harris administration for some number of the remaining four years.
Attendees of a house party ahead of the country club dinner were old school Reagan Republicans and past supporters of the son of the Garden State. Behind the bar stood a New Hampshire sign pole from the 1984 convention and a “Bush Country” poster.
State Rep. Wayne MacDonald, who served as Christie’s New Hampshire campaign chairman in 2016, told The Daily Beast he thinks Christie could cut into the 35 percent of the vote Trump took home in New Hampshire last time, despite his sixth-place finish.
Christie, MacDonald will remind fellow Granite State Republicans, made more visits to the state than any other candidate in the 2016 primary and cultivated strong relationships with the network of local lawmakers and independently wealthy power donors needed to run a competitive campaign.
Trump, of course, largely skipped the retail politics of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary that year. ”Two house parties! Two!” MacDonald shouted when Christie took one of several jabs at Trump during the house party.
And still, MacDonald said he genuinely believes Christie could beat Trump in New Hampshire this time around by winning over disaffected supporters of the former president who had the New Jersey governor as their second choice last time. A lot of what the campaign heard down the stretch, according to MacDonald, was that late-deciding voters liked both Trump and Christie’s “tell it like it is” approach—but Trump had the added appeal of being a political outsider.
“Just looking at DeSantis and Christie for right now… Nobody else is catching fire,” MacDonald said. “Christie has the advantage of having run before. Plus, if you compare his record to DeSantis’ record in Florida… I think that’s gonna be huge in terms of him being able to emerge as the alternative to Donald Trump.”
As for a financial pathway to competing with Trump, that part of the plan, MacDonald conceded, isn’t clear yet.
The longtime Christie supporter added another caveat: If New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu enters the race, all bets are off when it comes to that old school Granite State strategy.
With Trump sucking up the all the oxygen among small dollar donors in the GOP and the lack of an apparent deep-pocketed donor to catch Christie up on outside spending—not to mention staffing up a fully operational campaign in time for the first debate on Aug. 12—a 2024 Christie bid may only have enough gas in the tank to make it to the first debates.
There, rival campaigns secretly hope, he’ll deliver one last takedown.
“I’m not a paid assassin,” he recently told Politico, when asked about other campaigns getting excited at the prospect of a 2024 Christie campaign serving as an attack dog for everyone else against Trump on the debate stage.
“When you’re waking up for your 45th morning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester,” Christie said, “you better think you can win, because that walk from the bed to the shower, if you don’t think you can win, it’s hard.”
Despite his singular motivation over settling a score with the former president, as a general rule, Christie is increasingly irked over the questions about his relationship with Trump. In the same sit-down with Atlantic staff writer Mark Liebovic, Christie bemoaned how many times he’d be asked “the same fucking question” about Trump, and that he has “regrets about every part of my life.”
Christie notably dials back his bravado and tough guy tone when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis comes up. He leaves himself wiggle room, saying he still doesn’t know enough about the Florida governor and hasn’t seen enough of him on the stump to make an assessment.
DeSantis, much like Christie did ahead of the 2012 election, has been the subject of extensive commentary over the pitfalls of running for president either too soon or past one’s peak. When an audience member asked Christie about the proliferation of assault weapons and whether the NRA had too much influence over the party, he seemed relieved relative to talking about DeSantis.
“Trump lite is not gonna beat Trump,” Christie told the house party crowd, earning a round of vigorous head nods.
When asked about the exchange with the teenager in Henniker the night before—15-year-old Quinn Mitchell of Walpole, who saw no fewer than 16 presidential candidates in-person during the 2020 campaign and has earned a reputation for putting unsuspecting politicians on the spot—Christie began to get testy.
He explained he was only saying he’d vote for Trump under the hypothetical rematch with Clinton posed by Mitchell, and he quickly pivoted to how the MAGA base would see him now. “I think they would see me as a credible critic,” Christie said.
“’Cause I know him better than anybody,” he continued. “There’s nobody who can criticize you better than someone who knows you best. And there’s no one in this field, if I got into it, that would know Donald Trump better than me. So I think those people would find me to be the most credible critic, out of anybody else.”
Christie then took a brief pause.
“And secondly,” he said, “how do I make up the gap?”
After coming all this way, does he think he can close that 28-point gap against Trump in New Hampshire from 2016?
“That’s what campaigns are all about,” Christie told The Daily Beast.
“Donald Trump’s not the same guy he was eight years ago, nor am I,” he said. “And I think both of those things will lead to us doing differently: me better, and him worse.”