LIVINGSTON, New Jersey — Gov. Chris Christie is about to find out whether the tough-talking style that’s so popular at home in New Jersey will resonate on the presidential campaign trail.
Christie announced Tuesday he is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Speaking at his alma mater, Livingston High School, in Livingston, New Jersey, Christie said “he is now ready to fight for the people of the United States of America.”
“We must tell each other the truth about the problems we have and the difficulty of the solutions,” Christie added.
Christie is the 14th major contender seeking the GOP nomination.
Christie looked to the past while making his debut as presidential candidate, holding his announcement event at the same high school in Livingston where he grew up and served as class president.
“Why here? Because everything started here for me,” Christie said, embracing his roots as he took the stage in the school’s gymnasium. Just outside the gym, a team photo hangs of Christie and the Livingston “Lancers” baseball team in 1980.
“When I decided to make this announcement, there was no other choice. I had to come home. And Livingston is home for me.”
He made clear over the weekend that his up-front style — he once famously told a heckler to “sit down and shut up” — will be a central part of the campaign.
“I get accused a lot of times of being too blunt or too direct and saying what’s on my mind just a little bit too loudly,” Christie said in a video released over the weekend as part of his campaign, which uses the motto “Tell It Like It Is.”
He joined in the race with strong national name recognition and a record in public office that spans more than a decade, having served as New Jersey’s governor since 2010 and as a U.S. Attorney for the state from 2002-2010. But despite the notoriety, Christie has struggled to gain traction with voters in the run-up to his campaign.
A national CNN/ORC poll conducted in late May found that just 4% of Republican voters planned to support Christie, a drop from 13% late last year. In New Hampshire, a state where Christie is devoting significant attention, he’s tied at just 5% with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leads in the state with 15%.
In New Jersey, where his approval ratings have suffered in recent months, Christie has crafted an image as an aggressive straight talker. His upfront — even brash — style of dealing with those who question him in public has earned the governor both praise and criticism, but could rub voters the wrong way outside New Jersey.
His distinctive public manner, combined with efforts to provide an economic rebound to a state crippled by years of irresponsible budgeting, will serve as his selling point with voters, aides told CNN.
“What you see with Gov. Christie is what you get. He’s a different sort of candidate that tells the truth and talks to voters like adults,” said Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for Christie’s political action committee, Leadership Matters for America. “He has a proven record of getting things done when the odds are not in his favor.”
In many ways, Christie has taken steps toward a possible presidential run since the early years of his governorship. He forged relationships with party leaders in early-voting states since his second year on the job, when he visited Iowa for the first time in 2011. Christie has visited New Hampshire, which traditionally hosts the first-in-the-nation primary, 43 times, more than any other contender other than former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie campaigned for fellow governors around the country and worked to build a network of Republicans in key states. In January he and his allies launched the PAC, which provided a vehicle for fundraising and travel that have culminated to Tuesday’s announcement.
While he may have been the darling of the GOP a few years ago — prominent Republicans and donors tried to recruit him to run for president in 2012– Christie’s stature within the party has dipped in his second term as governor, particularly since the “Bridgegate” scandal, when aides ordered lanes of the busy George Washington Bridge to be closed as an act of retaliation against a local mayor. Investigators never proved Christie’s knowledge of the plan or his involvement, but the kerfuffle still brought on a long lasting sting.
Despite his willingness to compromise to pass legislation in New Jersey, Christie does hit many marks as a conservative: On social issues, he has fought same-sex marriage in New Jersey and in March he endorsed a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. On foreign policy, he points to Henry Kissinger as a key influencer of his thinking. And despite challenges, Christie has worked to implement significant (and politically unpopular) budget reforms.
“He is a true northeastern conservative moderate,” said Bob Ingle, the author of two books about New Jersey politics, including the political biography, Chris Christie: The Inside Story of His Rise to Power. “The conservatives are prejudiced against Christie going in. He’s the most conservative governor we’ve ever had in New Jersey, but I think conservative in New Jersey is probably moderate.”
Still, his willingness to compromise for the sake of “getting things done,” leaves him vulnerable to criticism from some on the right who insist on ideological purity.
In March, the conservative journal National Review published a critical cover story on his record in New Jersey, taking him to task for not doing enough to implement reforms and revive the state economy. “Christie’s administration could have achieved so much more,” the magazine wrote.
Perhaps his greatest challenge as governor came in late 2012, when Superstorm Sandy rocked the northeast and destroyed miles of coastline in the state. Christie’s swift and public response to the storm earned him a state-wide approval rating that skyrocketed past 75 percent in initially after the storm and he coasted to re-election the next year. Although some on the right bristled when Christie greeted and praised President Obama when he visited New Jersey after the storm — there were also been frustrations since then about the pace of doling out funds for storm aid–Christie’s handling of the natural disaster will likely play a role in his campaign messaging.
Looking ahead, Christie’s most formidable foe appears to be Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who, like Christie, also appeals to the moderate wing of the party and the donor class. Bush worked aggressively since launching his own political action committee early this year to shore up support from Wall Street supporters.
Christie and his allies moved quickly to push against the notion that Bush is the inevitable nominee, suggesting that primary voters won’t automatically gravitate toward the son and brother of two previous presidents.
“If the elites in Washington who make backroom deals decide who the next president is going to be, then he’s definitely going to be the front-runner,” Christie said during a question and answer session earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington, D.C.
At Republican gatherings around the country during the months preceding Christie’s announcement, the New Jersey governor also urged audiences to keep their minds open for the primaries.
“What I’ve told everybody—supporters of mine, potential donors of mine, staff—is, relax,” Christie said on a local radio show in January, a message he repeated often throughout the spring. “Everybody just calm down.”