Presidential races

It’s New Hampshire or bust for several Republican hopefuls

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will launch his presidential campaign in his home state Tuesday morning, but it is New Hampshire on which his hopes depend.

Christie is expected to head to the Granite State later on Tuesday and stay there for around five days — an action that speaks louder than words in making clear that his narrow path to the GOP nomination runs through cities, such as Manchester, Concord and Nashua.

“It’s win or go home,” said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor who is the author of a book on the state’s presidential primary.

“A candidate has to break out in one of the early states … and for Christie, New Hampshire is his best opportunity,” Scala added. “It’s a Northeastern state, a state where a large percentage — nearly half — of Republican voters are moderate or liberals. It’s a state that is built for a candidate like him, and it looks much better on paper for him than Iowa or South Carolina.”

But as Scala and other observers point out, Christie is not the only candidate for whom New Hampshire, the second contest in the nominating process, is of great importance. Those contenders whose appeal seems unlikely to resonate with the evangelical-rich GOP electorate in Iowa need to bounce back quickly with a strong performance.

That means the state is make-or-break for Ohio Gov. John Kasich just as much as for Christie. (Kasich is expected to declare his presidential candidacy on July 21.) A longer-shot, such as businesswoman Carly Fiorina, also needs to gain traction there.

For former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a second- or third-place finish in New Hampshire would not necessarily be a fatal blow, but it would raise serious questions about his viability.

But the picture for Christie is particularly stark.

“Christie has to win in New Hampshire because I don’t know where else Christie plays if he loses New Hampshire,” said Jamie Burnett, a longtime GOP strategist in the state who is not working for any candidate this cycle, though he is leaning toward backing Bush. “I think he is putting all his chips on New Hampshire, and I think he is smart to do that.”

Christie and his aides would once have hoped to have more leeway than this. But his once-lofty standing has been lowered by a succession of problems. The most infamous is “Bridgegate” — the scandal over the closure of lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge, allegedly as an act of political retribution against a local mayor.

But Christie’s embrace of President Obama just before Election Day 2012, after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Garden State, still rankles many conservatives. Meanwhile, a stubbornly high level of unemployment, as well as other economic problems, including repeated credit downgrades for New Jersey, have sapped his popularity at home.

“He described himself as someone who had bipartisan appeal, but with women, independents, Democrats, labor-union households, he has lost support,” said Krista Jenkins, a political science professor and polling expert at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Even so, Jenkins also noted that “he still does well among his base.”

On the face of it, Christie has a steep uphill climb. In the RealClearPolitics national polling average, he currently places ninth, with 4 percent support. Unless he improves that standing, he would only make it onto the stage for the first televised GOP debates by the skin of his teeth.

The first caucus state of Iowa seems unlikely to boost his chances. He is 10th in the RealClearPolitics average there. New Hampshire, where Christie is sixth, provides a sliver of light.

The Granite State also has a history of throwing a lifeline to candidates who were once seen as lost causes. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the GOP primary in 2000 (against a much better-funded George W. Bush, then governor of Texas) and in 2008, when his campaign had seemed to be dead in the water only a few months before.

Christie needs to emulate that kind of comeback. And some experts say he should not be counted out.

“He is very good at some of the things you need to succeed here,” said Tom Rath, a one-time attorney general in New Hampshire whose memories of GOP primaries stretches back to 1964. “I’ve been to several of his town halls, and he’s a horse: He goes in there for an hour and stays two hours, answers every question. That skill set is serving him well.”

Christie backers are pinning their hopes on two factors: their man’s attributes as an up-close-and-personal campaigner and the belief that he will be a standout on the debate stage.

“People are overlooking the upcoming debates,” said Dale Florio, a New Jersey lobbyist and longtime Christie fundraiser. “The specificity, the directness and the confidence that I would expect him to exude will, I think, provide a nice wind to his back” in the run-up to the first contests.

“New Hampshire is tailored for his style of campaigning,” Florio added. “He is the best retail politician [in the field]. … It’s a slog, handshake by handshake. But that’s what’s expected by the voters in New Hampshire, and that’s what they’re going to get when Chris Christie hits the road starting [Tuesday] afternoon.”

The experts agree that Christie should not be dismissed. But they don’t underplay the challenges that face him, either.

“I think New Hampshire boils down to a single elimination round between John Kasich and Chris Christie, with the possibility that both of them could be eliminated,” said Scala, the University of New Hampshire professor. “A resounding Jeb Bush victory here pretty much knocks both Kasich and Christie off the table.”

And for Christie to ultimately win the nomination?

“Its not impossible,” Scala said. “But the odds are long.”

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