HAMPTON, N.H. — Chris Christie says he can bring Washington together, by treating even his Democratic rivals with patience and respect.
But first, Christie would like his audience to imagine him as a pickup truck. Which is running over Hillary Clinton.
“You nominate this old truck, and let me tell you what’s going to happen: I’m going to get through that mud,” Christie told a standing-room-only crowd in a school cafeteria Sunday, indulging in a long, folksy anecdote in which Christie compared himself to a reliable, battered truck that could get through the mud Clinton would throw at him.
Then the metaphor turned from New Hampshire light to New Jersey dark.
“I’m gonna run her right over on the way to the White House,” Christie said.
In Christie’s desperate last days in New Hampshire, he’s tried a kind of whiplash strategy, playing two seemingly opposite things at once.
When Christie talks about himself, he says he is the GOP’s mature, sober, time-tested adult. “We do not have to hate our adversaries!” he said here, to applause.
But when Christie talks about everybody else, he sounds like the race’s belittling schoolyard tough guy. He’s promised to “kick [President Obama’s] rear end out of the White House” and to “beat [Clinton’s] rear end.” Then, in Saturday night’s Republican debate, Christie laid into Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for using canned talking points, rattling Rubio so badly that he used the same talking points again. And then again.
It was a moral victory for Christie, and the candidate was savoring it a day later.
“Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the face,” Christie said.
Christie said Sunday that the rough rhetoric was something he’d planned all along.
“You all are the junior political analysts here. I do this for a living. I picked when I want to do it,” Christie said in a news conference after reporters questioned why he had waited so late to take on Rubio. “I had a strategy all along.”
If that’s true, then Christie was following an especially daring strategy. It required him to spend more than 60 days campaigning in New Hampshire, fall into sixth place here, then — with first place seemingly out of reach — unleash a last-minute barrage aimed at the second-place candidate.
When a reporter asked if Christie would drop out if he lost in New Hampshire, Christie’s braggadocio dropped a little. His response was, in effect, that it depends on what you mean by losing.
Indeed, Christie’s advisers seemed to be hoping merely for a finish in the top tier, so Christie can go on to South Carolina — but that’s a place where he is not projected to do well.
“There’s no way this party’s gonna settle for Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz” as their only choices, Christie adviser Mike DuHaime said after the debate.
“They’re going to be searching for an alternative,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), a Christie ally who has appeared with him at campaign events here.
Asked for comment for this article, a spokeswoman for Christie rejected the idea that his campaign-trail insults undermined his promises to cooperate with rivals as president.
“There’s a difference between campaign rhetoric and when you govern. And I think everyone knows that,” said spokeswoman Samantha Smith. “At the end of the day, the adults in the room get together and get work done.”
As proof of that cooperative spirit, she said that Christie on Sunday had run into Clinton — of whom he had said “I’ll beat her rear end” in a presidential debate — in a CNN studio. And they were cordial.
There was a time, back in 2014, when Christie was the front-runner in New Hampshire polls. Then came trouble on two fronts.
First was the “Bridgegate” investigation, in which Christie’s subordinates allegedly closed lanes to a major bridge to New York City to punish a New Jersey mayor who hadn’t supported Christie’s reelection. That put Christie’s pugnacious persona in a new light: His administration appeared to have used state power to settle a petty political score. (Christie has said he had no advance warning of the closures).
Then, suddenly, another problem. The GOP race had another loudmouth, Donald Trump, who attracted fed-up voters who might otherwise have been drawn to Christie.
“We need somebody that’s edgy. That’s what my feeling is,” said John Moore, 73, a Maine resident who came to see Christie in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Did that mean he was a Christie supporter?
“I hate to say it. I don’t hate to say it,” Moore said, wrestling with embarrassment. “I like Trump.”
Christie remains a very skilled retail campaigner, perhaps the best in the GOP field.
In events this weekend, he told powerful stories about a friend lost to drug addiction and a crying little girl he comforted after Hurricane Sandy. (“The first time I ever saw a child crying, that finished me,” he said.)
He was also funny, relating his exasperation as a parent at the expensive perks that colleges made him pay for. “There’s an epidemic of rock-climbing walls!” Christie said at one appearance, and joked that this epidemic had even reached New Hampshire, where they weren’t needed. “You’ve got rocks, man! You’ve got rocks everywhere!” Christie said. “You’re the Granite State. Your state is named after rocks!”
But even after all that campaigning here, he was in sixth place. So, in the past few weeks, Christie has turned to a harder-edged strategy. It has been particularly harsh on Clinton — and on Rubio, who was running between seven and 12 points ahead of Christie in recent GOP polls.
Even before he took on Rubio Saturday night, Christie had been belittling the first-term senator as a greenhorn protected by the media. “The boy in the bubble,” Christie called him.
Christie actually does a very good impersonation of Trump. “The good people go in, the bad people go out. It’s gonna be an amazing wall, it’s gonna be a beautiful wall,” Christie said, in the front-runner’s Queens accent. Then, in his own New Jersey accent, an incredulous question: “How?” But he’s never done it to Trump’s face in a debate. He chose to zing the second-place guy instead.
Christie’s attacks have stung Rubio. But it’s not clear yet if they lifted Christie out of the lower tier of candidates, overcoming the other worries that follow him.
After seeing Christie on Sunday, Robert and Mary Flannery of Portsmouth were sold on him, insults and all.
“He tells it how it is,” said Robert Flannery, 83.
“It gives you confidence that he can do things. He feels good about himself. He has confidence,” Mary Flannery said.