LIVINGSTON, N.J. — In the late 1970s, Chris Christie played catcher for the Lancers baseball team here at Livingston High School. He was also elected class president three times.
On Tuesday, Christie returned to his alma mater’s gymnasium to announce his long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination with a speech that fused his trademark pugnacity with a pragmatic pitch.
“I am ready to fight for the people of the United States of America,” Christie, 52, thundered to hundreds gathered on the basketball court holding signs and phones aloft. He said that “both parties have failed our country,” and he promised to use his experience as a Republican navigating a deep-blue state to restore a “country built on compromise.”
Christie’s attempt to pair those two personas — part political warrior, part unifier — came off as discordant at times. One moment, he tossed a barb at President Obama for living in his “own world, not in our world,” then pivoted to a call for bipartisanship.
The low-key, local feel was striking. National party leaders once lavished praise on Christie and touted him as the Republican future, but few of them showed up Tuesday to stand with him. The crowd was modest in size, as was the gym — boxy rather than cavernous, reflective of his diminished standing as the 14th official candidate in a still-expanding GOP field.
Wearing a dark suit and roaming the stage with a wireless microphone like a talk-show host, Christie shrugged off his naysayers. In a nod to the venue, he said he is not running “as a surrogate for being prom king.”
Left unmentioned were Christie’s myriad problems: a politically motivated traffic snarl that engulfed his administration and led to indictments for several former aides, shuttered casinos in Atlantic City, a cascade of credit downgrades that have rattled the state’s economy, and a pension system with billions in unfunded liabilities.
Christie headed later Tuesday to New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary. He will host a series of town hall meetings in hopes of gaining ground on former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose business-friendly politics overlap with his own and whose backing from the establishment has lifted him at this early juncture.
“There are two paths to the nomination, Iowa or New Hampshire, and we’re clearly on the New Hampshire path,” Christie strategist Russell J. Schriefer said in an interview. “We think his ability to do town halls and be himself will eventually pay dividends.”
Christie’s homecoming to school hallways that smelled of lemon disinfectant had aspects of the media-political circus that usually trails him wherever he goes. There were satellite trucks and protesters — most of them public employees and environmentalists — swarming outside as state troopers looked on.
Inside, it was a celebration of the New Jersey governor’s bluntness and middle-class roots, which he believes make him different from rivals who are wealthier, Midwestern or members of Congress known more for Beltway talking points than candor.
Marks of “Jersey” were ubiquitous. “Telling It Like It Is,” Christie’s campaign slogan, with the gruff cadence of a Bruce Springsteen lyric, was plastered on posters. State legislators exchanged cards as they mingled in the heat. Three rowdy children wearing New Jersey Devils T-shirts ate Italian sandwiches as they waited.
Bon Jovi’s “We Weren’t Born to Follow” played as Christie and his family entered. Garden State rocker Jon Bon Jovi — who hosted a fundraiser for Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday night in Red Bank, N.J. — gave Christie permission to play that track, as well as “It’s My Life.”
Largely avoiding ideological notes, Christie repeatedly turned back to his family and lessons from his suburban ascent, from county freeholder to federal prosecutor and then, in 2009, to governor.
“Everything started here for me. The confidence, the education, the friends, the family, and the love that I’ve always felt for and from this community,” Christie said. “I had to come home, and Livingston is home for me.”
Still, those who did not come home with him said a lot about Christie’s troubles within the state GOP. Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean — Christie’s political mentor for decades before his relationship with Christie frayed — did not appear. His son, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., cited scheduling “conflicts.” State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, Christie’s former gubernatorial campaign chairman, has signed on with Bush.
Christie joins the 2016 race lagging far behind Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a half-dozen others, not just in national polls but in favor with the party’s biggest donors. Many are unsure of whether Christie’s once golden political brand, driven in his first term by millions of YouTube hits, can be salvaged.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump has excited activists with his own bombast, making Christie’s outsize personality less of a draw. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who plans to enter the contest next month, has a frank personal style and appeal to moderates that could threaten Christie from the center.
Ray Washburne, Christie’s Dallas-based national finance chairman, acknowledged that “there are a lot of people running” but said that he remains upbeat about the governor’s chances. “Chris is the best salesman out there,” he said as he stood near the bleacher seats texting donors. “He’ll have the money he needs to close the sale.”
Ed Smith, 61, a GOP freeholder from Warren County, said he drove 50 miles to see Christie and would stick with him. He attributed Christie’s fading support among New Jersey Republicans to “turf wars.” A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll released last week showed his approval rating in New Jersey was 30 percent.
“This is a governor who doesn’t mind telling people no when they ask for something,” Smith said. “Sometimes he seems to enjoy it. That’s who he is.”
The essence of Christie’s domestic message was that he would be a steady hand if elected, engaging with Congress while also providing the executive branch with a manager who would calm national “anxiety” about Washington’s dysfunction. He did this between bursts of indignation and finger jabs.
“If you give me the privilege to be your president, I will wake up every day not only with my heart strong and my mind sharp, but with my ears open and my arms open to welcome the American people no matter what party, no matter what race or creed or color, to make sure that you know that this is your country, too,” he said.
Alluding to his push to overhaul Social Security and Medicare, he pledged to pursue reforms he sees as necessary, even if “it makes you cringe every once in a while.”
In his short remarks on foreign affairs, Christie was hawkish, advocating an assertive U.S. role in the world and warning Republicans not to allow an Obama ally to be elected. “The fact is this,” he said, “after seven years of a weak and feckless foreign policy run by Barack Obama, we better not turn it over to his second mate, Hillary Clinton.”
But in the end, Tuesday was mostly about Christie’s roiling charisma, cultivated during more than 130 town hall meetings in recent years and now offered to Republicans nationally.
“There is one thing you will know for sure,” Christie said, “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”
Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.