Christie Crosses the Bridge

Favorability on the rise as more voters recall why they liked him in first place

It seems a stretch to bet on a candidate whose polling is so low that he is in danger of missing the next prime-time debate, but Chris Christie may be quietly positioning himself to make a clutch run.

The New Jersey governor has struggled to raise money, has been dogged by the George Washington Bridge scandal, and has battled against high unfavorability ratings among likely Republican voters. But he could be poised for a breakout in New Hampshire, which hosts the nation’s first primary and traditionally has rewarded candidates with Christie’s one-on-one campaigning skills, according to Granite State political experts.

Related: Christie Rips GOP Congress

“They’re the reason why he’s still viable,” said Ronald Shaiko, a political science professor at Dartmouth College. In front of a small audience, he added, “he’s much more captivating than even (Donald) Trump is.”

Christie’s talent for retail politics so far has not translated into support in the polls. He sits in 10th place, with a polling average of 2 percent in national surveys, according to RealClearPolitics. But in New Hampshire, he is in fifth place, with 8 percent, in a recent WBUR poll.

The poll, released Sunday, showed 51 percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire had a favorable view of Christie. That was up from 39 percent in a September poll, the biggest improvement of any Republican. The 20-point difference between favorable and unfavorable ratings trails only retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and businesswoman Carly Fiornia.

Christie beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical matchup by 5 percentage points.

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A national poll by Quinnipiac University on Wednesday showed similar results. The 34-point net favorability rating for Christie was fifth in the GOP field. He also beat Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical matchup by 5 percentage points, tied with Rubio for second best among Republicans measured.

Chris Galderi, a political science professor at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, said Christie’s image among Republicans is improving as coverage fades from a scandal involving lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

Galderi also said voters tend to like Christie when they meet him.

“He’s very good one on one,” he said. “I’ve seen him a number of times. He’s very good at that kind of politicking.”

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Christie’s rapport with voters in intimate settings was on display last month when, at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, he spoke about his mother’s lifelong struggle to quit smoking — using her example to explain why the criminal justice system should favor treatment over incarceration for addicts. The Huffington Post recorded the talk. It has been viewed on Facebook almost 4 million times.

“I’m pro-life,” he told the gathering. “And I think that if you’re pro-life, you’ve gotta be pro-life for the whole life, not just the nine months they’re in the womb.”

Galderi said Christie has spent a great deal of time in the state. The problem he faces, the professor said, is that he has stiff competition for the more moderate, Establishment wing of the party. If Establishment favorite Jeb Bush continues to falter, he said, Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are well-positioned to split the vote.

“He needs Rubio to stumble,” Galderi said. “He needs Kasich not to win people over.”

Related: Ten Questions for Rubio

New Hampshire has been quieter so far than the typical fall before a presidential primary. Shaiko said there have been relatively few TV ads and less direct mail as candidates either conserve money or test the theory that national campaigns matter more than local campaigning.

Galderi said Rubio only now has begun to emphasize personal appearances in the state.

As other campaigns rely more on debates and national media, Shaiko said, there could be a chance to win the nomination the old-fashioned way.

“The candidate who does that might, in fact, steal the show,” he said.

Christie likely has no other option. Iowa, with its disproportionate evangelical population, is not a natural fit for Christie. And his campaign lacks the resources to grind it out over the long haul. Shaiko said New Hampshire is his only opportunity to catapult himself into contention.

“At this point, it’s a make-or-break situation for him,” he said. “But it’s doable.”

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