ROCHESTER, N.H. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been a presidential candidate for only a few days, but he’s already settled into his routine: gather a crowd, remove his jacket and take questions — and more questions and more questions.
And when the event is over and the crowd is filing out into the parking lot, he stays for more until the room has emptied.
Starting well back in the pack of Republican candidates, and with resistance to his candidacy among many GOP voters, Christie’s chosen vehicle for political rehabilitation is the town hall meeting.
“It’s what you expect us to do,” he said Thursday morning here at the Pink Cadillac Diner.
Town hall meetings are part of the cherished tradition of presidential campaigning in New Hampshire and something the governor thinks is particularly suited to his blunt, freewheeling style. He’s now done more than a dozen town halls in the Granite State, along with 138 in New Jersey.
Christie has campaigned constantly in New Hampshire since announcing his candidacy Tuesday, with one detour to neighboring Maine to pick up the endorsement of Gov. Paul LePage. He will be here through Saturday and plans to return frequently.
Christie said Thursday that he sees two challenges, as he tries to scramble up the ladder in the crowded field of GOP candidates. He must erase any negative impressions that may linger from the controversies of his governorship and his personality, and he must persuade voters here and elsewhere that he would make a good president.
[Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage]
“Listen, the last year-and-a-half hasn’t been a picnic, so there’s some of that,” he said in a brief interview Wednesday morning, referring to his negatives. “But there’s also some really residual good will that’s here. . . . I’ve spent a lot of time in New Hampshire advocating for other Republicans. . . . But that doesn’t make them think you’re a president.”
Christie’s big personality is part of what he is selling, hoping that it serves as a proxy for strong leadership that he believes voters are looking for. But personality-based candidacies alone usually aren’t enough unless they are combined with a record of accomplishments and a substantive plan to lead the country.
Christie’s path in New Hampshire isn’t clear-cut by any means. He will be competing with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and possibly others for the mainstream conservatives who populate the state.
But if he can catch on, which strategists here don’t discount, Christie could become a threat to any or all of those candidates who also see New Hampshire as a place they must win or do extremely well in.
Christie’s town hall meetings are well-choreographed. The introductions are brief at best. There is no walk-on music typical of most campaign events. Christie, who speaks with no notes, sprinkles his remarks with local trivia and humorous asides. He begins by warming up his crowd with references to his more infamous moments where he has directly confronted citizens in New Jersey who have challenged him.
[Watch Post TV: Chris Christie in his own words]
“Some of you may have seen some of those clips on TV or on YouTube over time,” he said in Rochester. “I get really in touch with my people.”
Christie’s opening also includes a lengthy statement about some of his policy proposals — entitlement and tax reform and a muscular foreign policy that includes plenty of criticism of President Obama. He hits Obama hard for lack of leadership abroad but stops short of suggesting his goal is to put the country back into foreign wars.
“There’s a difference between being the world’s policeman and being the world’s leader,” Christie said in Ashland Wednesday night. “We’re not looking to conquer them. We’re not looking to dominate them. We just want a peaceful world.”
Then, as he removes his coat, he starts the questions and answers, and the hands shoot up for as long as he is willing to answer. In Ashland, more than an hour into his event at a packed American Legion hall, aides signaled for him to wrap it up.
“They tell me I can take one more question, which means I’ll take two, because I want to show them I’m still the boss,” Christie said.
So far, Christie has displayed more humor than belligerence, which may be a calculated strategy. Christie and his team are aware that every exchange is being recorded by the media and by opposition trackers, who are ready to pounce on any undignified moment.
To show a friendlier side, he talks about the time he did a town hall meeting at a pub in Exeter. “Yes, I do town halls in bars,” he said. “I think it works great for me. When people start drinking, I get more charming, I get smarter.”
[It’s hard to overstate Chris Christie’s unpopularity problem]
On Wednesday night, six-year-old Cameron Theos asked Christie if he could come see him in the White House. Christie leaned in close to the boy, joked that he wouldn’t make the promise to anyone who asked, but since Cameron was the first, he would oblige. He said Cameron could sit at the presidential desk in the Oval Office and eat some presidential M&Ms — but not sign any executive orders.
That was one example of Christie’s effort to connect with voters, and his engaging style drew favorable responses from a number of the people who came to see him this week, even if they are far from making any decisions about whom they will support.
“He clarified the issues for me,” said Randal Heller, a retired U.S. Navy commander whose first choice at the moment is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. “He was succinct, to the point. . . . This is a guy who can cross party lines and get things done. He’s my second choice, but he borders on being my first.”
Christie’s campaign slogan is “Telling It Like It Is,” which suggests he’s not simply looking to be loved. He believes straight talk and occasional disagreement with voters is his biggest asset. Most politicians, he said, “just want you to love them long enough to get in the voting booth and pull the lever. I’m not that kind of guy.”
As the crowd filtered out here Thursday morning in Rochester, Christie lingered to meet whomever stuck around. Some voters approached Christie in search of life advice. Chase Hagaman, 27, told the governor that he was getting married in a week.
“Give me a pearl of wisdom for my new journey in life,” Hagaman pleaded.
With his wife, Mary Pat, listening in, Christie indulged the young man.
“Marriage is a 100-percent proposition,” he said. “You have to be committed every day to making up the difference to get to 100. That’s the way marriage survives.”