New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has seen his presidential stock fall to the point where questions are being raised on whether he’ll really enter the race.
It’s a stunning turnaround for the governor, who not that long ago was seen as the Republican to beat.
Other candidates have since stolen his thunder, and it’s increasingly appearing he might have missed his best shot at the White House in 2012.
“You see the polls, they don't give him a lot of encouragement,” said one Republican donor said. “That's discouraging as heck.
Those figures, coupled with lingering doubts on the right that Christie is conservative enough to be the GOP nominee suggest it’s at least possible the New Jersey governor could decide to avoid a primary defeat where he might suffer a humiliating defeat.
“If you asked me two weeks ago, I'd say, 'No question — he's running,' ” said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s Polling Institute. “Now I think there's a bit of a question, and it's mainly because of the potential for him to be totally embarrassed in those early contests.”
Christie’s brand was badly damaged by the “Bridgegate” scandal, when senior officials close to him were implicated in closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge as an act of political payback against a New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse him.
Indictments are expected soon in the scandal, which will bring more bad publicity for Christie.
In a recent interview in NJTV’s “Pasta and Politics,” a New Jersey host spooned pasta on to Christie’s plate and asked him what his biggest regret was. Without naming the Bridgegate scandal, Christie said he wished he would not have trusted certain people, saying it had hurt him personally and professionally.
Christie is still gearing up to launch a campaign later this summer, and will visit New Hampshire next week for his “Tell it like it is” tour.
GOP strategists say it will be a critical few days for him.
“He's got to stop the bloodletting in the polls,” said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. “He's not dead in the water, but he's certainly on life support and his condition is getting worse by the day.”
Past GOP candidates have stumbled and come back.
Christie allies point to the 2008 cycle and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a recent example. McCain was left for dead in 2007 only to make a stunning comeback and win the GOP nomination a year later.
Privately, Christie is calling donors and asking them not to count him out, according to sources familiar with the calls.
“He is being very clear to people that he is still a serious contender,” said one Republican donor.
Christie will have to compete with Bush, Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), among others, for the mantle of the GOP establishment.
When Bush entered the race, it was seen as a blow to Christie, and Rubio’s stock is also on the rise. He will formally enter the race on Monday.
Further to the right, Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.) have entered the race to fanfare, and Ben Carson and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are among those expected to follow them into the race.
Bush’s entrance has hurt Christie, who is competing with the Bush family for big-money donors.
But the GOP donor said it hasn’t closed the door on Christie.
“I'm friends with Jeb. I like Jeb a lot — but the difference is passion and energy and an ability to appeal across the spectrum to all voters. Chris has that,” the donor said.
Christie's supporters are adamant that he can make a comeback.
“Chris Christie still has a chance,” said supporter Bobbie Kilberg, the head of the Northern Virginia Technology Council. She’s hosting a fundraiser at her home in May for Christie.
Christie may lose the money war to Bush, but Kilberg and other supporters say that won’t decide the GOP primary.
“You don't need to outraise all the other candidates. Nobody is going to outraise Jeb Bush — that's just not going to happen. What's key here is that it's not just about raising money. It's about being able to win votes,” she said.
If Christie does enter the race, supporters say he will need to win New Hampshire.
They argue his ability to connect with voters in one-on-one settings and town halls makes him a contender who cannot be counted out.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R), a onetime political mentor to Christie before their relationship was strained, argued he shouldn't be written off just yet.
"Look, on paper, his chances don't look great," Kean said. "But if you know — you can't count him out. He's determined, he's bright and he's a brawler. So if it gets to be a brawl — he'll do very well."
“Gov. Christie is wise to be focusing on New Hampshire especially because he is so good at retail politics,” said GOP donor Fred Malek, who argues “it's all on the line” for Christie in the Granite State.
“If you've shaken his hand, you get it. That's what New Hampshire is all about: up close and personal,” Murray said. “He has more charisma than anyone else in the field.”