If there’s one thing the political press agreed on, it was that Chris Christie was toast, washed up, had missed his moment.
Just two months ago, the New York Times editorial page urged him to drop out, saying New Jersey was in trouble and “the governor is off pursuing a presidential run that’s turned out to be nothing more than a vanity project.”
So why are some of the other candidates suddenly beating up on Christie? Could it be that the pundits were wrong again?
The last time I interviewed Christie, he waved off his low standing in the polls by saying that no one had voted yet. He denied that he was just playing for respectability and insisted he could win the nomination. Nor did he mope when he was knocked off the main stage at the last Fox Business debate.
The governor essentially settled on a one-state strategy, camping out in New Hampshire, doing endless town halls and using his flair for retail politicking to connect with voters. Now Time says he is playing in Iowa as well: “In recent weeks, the Christie has shifted strategy as he eyes an opening in Iowa, not to win, but to place ahead of Bush.”
Quite a contrast to April 2014, when Politico ran a piece headlined “Chris Christie Is Toast” (this in reference to the Bridgegate scandal, though no evidence surfaced of his complicity). Or last April, when Joy Behar told Christie on “The View”: “You’re toast.”
Or last February, when Times columnist Gail Collins wrote: “Chris Christie is political toast.” She also had this deliciously dismissive sentence: “Chris Christie is now about as serious a presidential prospect as Donald Trump.”
Christie’s challenge is selling political experience in a year when that is anathema to many Republican voters.
These days, according to the Real Clear Politics average in New Hampshire, Christie has essentially pulled himself into a three-way tie for second place. Donald Trump leads with 26.3 percent, followed by Marco Rubio with 13.3 percent, Ted Cruz with 12 percent and Christie with 11.3 percent.
Christie is competing in the so-called establishment lane against Rubio, Jeb Bush and John Kasich to emerge as an alternative to Trump and Cruz. And that’s why he is suddenly taking a bunch of slings and arrows.
Rubio’s Super PAC just released an ad that begins, “Chris Christie could well be Obama’s favorite Republican governor.” The spot whacks him for supporting Common Core and “incredibly” even backing Obama’s Medicaid expansion (as a number of other GOP governors have done). Christie whacked him hard in response yesterday, telling the Washington Post that the senator is "trying to slime his way to the White House." Rubio has also hit back at Christie’s slam against his Senate absenteeism, saying the governor has missed plenty of work in his home state.
Kasich’s Super PAC did a spot comparing Ohio’s budget surplus to New Jersey’s $10-billion deficit. And Bush’s Super PAC has a “Three Governors” ad contrasting his Florida record with those of Christie and Kasich.
Christie, for his part, has been trying to position himself as a political grownup, accusing Obama of acting like a “petulant child” on gun control and stressing the terrorism cases he handled as a federal prosecutor. His case against Trump: “It’s not enough to express anger. We must elect someone who actually knows how to get things done.” His shorthand version: “Showtime is fun,” meaning it’s now time to get serious.
Even if Christie does well in New Hampshire, he doesn’t have much going in the states after that. He implicitly conceded the point, telling reporters: “The idea is, if you do well in Iowa and New Hampshire, you will have momentum, and I’m not worried about what will happen after that.”
With Trump and Cruz the clear front-runners, it’s not clear whether Christie will have the staying power he needs. But his recent progress is a reminder that the media too often write premature political obituaries.