LONDONDERRY, N.H. — Chris Christie arrived at an American Legion Post one night this month armed with zingers against his better-performing Republican presidential rivals. He criticized Nikki Haley’s “word salad,” mocked Ron DeSantis’s “TV tough guy talk” and claimed to be the “only one here trying to beat Trump.”
“I’m not going anywhere, so let’s be really clear about that,” he told reporters after the town hall, when asked about calls to drop out.
The former New Jersey governor’s determination to stay in the race as the most unsparing critic of Donald Trump while he ramps up attacks on his opponents has become a point of tension with some Republicans who are clinging to long-shot hopes of stopping the former president. After gaining little traction outside New Hampshire with his straight-talk campaign centered on preventing Trump from returning to power, Christie, a former Trump ally, is now accused by some Republican operatives of increasing that possibility by refusing to clear the way for alternatives now seen as more viable, most notably Haley.
Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, noted that she has “tons of appreciation for [Christie] getting up and prosecuting the case against Trump.” But she said it has been clear to her and many others who have been polling the Republican electorate that many of Christie’s voters would turn to Haley if he left the race.
“His negatives are too high. He can’t just stay in the race like he did 2016,” she said. “There’s a bunch of people who are very frustrated with the way that this race feels beat by beat like a replaying of 2016.”
Christie forcefully rejected that logic in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, arguing that he is the only major Republican candidate who is making the case, every day on the campaign trail, that Trump is unfit to be president. He dismissed comparisons to 2016 — when he endorsed then-candidate Trump shortly after dropping out of the GOP primary race himself — by noting that Trump had not been indicted four times, wasn’t using language that threatened democracy and hadn’t yet tried to obstruct the results of an election to remain in power.
“There is no leader of the anti-Trump wing of the party in this race other than me,” Christie said, accusing Haley and DeSantis of tiptoeing around criticisms of Trump while positioning themselves for the 2028 nomination fight. He noted, for example, that neither of them immediately condemned Trump, as Christie did, for stating that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
“That tells you what they are willing to do is curry favor with folks who are currently supporting not them but Donald Trump,” Christie said. “How is that a strategy for winning this election?”
The frictions over how to narrow the GOP field are palpable in New Hampshire, where Trump leads by a wide margin but Haley — a former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador under Trump — has gained ground and climbed into sole possession of a distant second place in the polls. She and Christie are competing for many of the same voters, including anti-Trump Republicans and independents, who can also participate in the GOP primary. A new CBS News-YouGov poll in New Hampshire shows Haley closing the gap with Trump, with the former president at 44 percent and Haley at 29 percent among GOP primary voters, who view her as the most “likable” and “reasonable” candidate. Christie trails far behind at 10 percent.
But Christie and his allies have dismissed suggestions to exit the race because no vote has been cast yet, and the campaign and polling experts say many New Hampshire voters are undecided. With a month left until the Jan. 23 vote, Christie is focusing all of his energy on this state, bypassing the Jan. 15 Iowa caucuses and expecting to be the only Republican candidate here that night.
“The field will consolidate when it wants to consolidate,” he told reporters here on Dec. 13. “You’re not going to force it, donors aren’t going to force it. The only people who are going to force it are voters.”
Above all, Christie and his allies argue, he is best equipped to defeat Trump in a one-on-one primary showdown next year. In his campaign’s first television ad, which aired last Friday in New Hampshire, he criticized Haley and DeSantis for fighting with each other instead of trying to beat Trump.
“I’m not a liar, and he is, and that’s it. And if you can’t stand up for that, then you don’t belong being president,” Christie said of Trump at the town hall.
But his brash anti-Trump message has had less resonance with voters compared with the messages of Haley, who has focused more on questioning Trump’s electability, and DeSantis, who has questioned Trump’s ability to deliver his agenda. The Florida governor is polling a distant second behind Trump in Iowa, similar to Haley in New Hampshire. For some Haley supporters, Christie’s presence in the race is a vexing one.
“This is a very talented man with a great deal to offer the country,” said Eric Levine, a New York-based donor who has been raising money for Haley. “But he has no path to winning, and all he does he help nominate Trump.”
Christie doesn’t have a campaign song. But if the Bruce Springsteen superfan had to pick one, he told New Hampshire voters, one particular title from the New Jersey rockstar’s discography comes to mind: “No Surrender.”
Christie and his allies shrug off suggestions that he should exit the race as self-interested messages driven by opinion writers and Haley’s backers and financiers.
“I have not gotten one phone call, not one, asking me to drop out,” Christie told The Post on Tuesday. “Not a text message, not an email, not a phone call from anyone.”
Campaign staffers say they have built a lean operation for the long game — eyeing states later on the calendar, such as Michigan, Virginia and Ohio, where they believe Christie can draw out independents who can participate in the process.
They also dispute the idea that Haley has a clearer path than her rivals do after New Hampshire, given that she is trailing Trump by an average of nearly 30 points in her home state, South Carolina, which is holding its primary on Feb. 24.
“Even if you were to consolidate all of the votes from Nikki, Ron and Christie, you basically get to a point where you’re tied with Trump at best — at that point you have to beat him,” said Mike DuHaime, a longtime strategist for Christie. “You have to go one on one against him, and [Haley] has shown no willingness to really go at him in any kind of hard way.”
But Christie has struggled since launching his campaign centered on forcefully challenging Trump. He is skipping the Iowa caucuses, and his streak of low polling has made it unlikely that he’ll qualify for the next debate, on Jan. 10. Haley also received an endorsement from New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, as well as the endorsement of the influential Koch network.
Haley has suggested that “chaos, vendettas and drama” surround Trump, and she has critiqued Trump’s praise of controversial world leaders. She has said that Americans have grown weary of the drama surrounding Trump and has pointed to polling that shows she would beat Biden by a greater margin than Trump would. But she has also said she would support him as the Republican nominee, even if he’s convicted, and she doesn’t dispute his record as president.
DeSantis has also accused the former president of not keeping campaign promises, such as building the border wall and having Mexico pay for it, and has said Trump is not the same now as he was when he was in office. At the same time, the Florida governor has also said he’d support Trump as the nominee despite a possible conviction, and signaled that he might pardon Trump if elected.
Christie and Trump have had a tumultuous relationship in recent years. In 2016, Christie endorsed Trump shortly before Super Tuesday — a surprise after attacking him on the trail — but was later removed as chairman of Trump’s transition team and replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Christie also advised Trump during his administration, serving at one point on a commission developed to address the growing opioid crisis.
But the allyship ended when Trump refused to accept the results of the 2020 election. Christie now says Trump is a threat because of the serious criminal charges he faces that jeopardize the GOP’s hopes of retaking the White House, and his comments that he would be a dictator on “Day One.”
Sitting at a Haley town hall in Newport, N.H., on Dec. 13, William Smith, a retired postal worker not registered with either major party, said he liked Haley and Christie. He said that he would be voting for Haley based on her foreign policy experience and that he liked the idea of having a female president, and he thought Christie should drop out to make Haley an easier choice for voters like him who are interested in both candidates.
At the same time, he said Haley lacked one quality that he admired in Christie: his willingness to go after Trump.
Smith voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but Trump in 2020, because he thought the former president had improved the country. Yet, Smith shook his head as he recounted his decision. He had grown tired of Trump’s reckless behavior and could no longer support him after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.
After the fourth presidential debate last week in Alabama, Christie brought back stories of his favorite highlights from the stage. At his town hall, he joked about the other candidates skirting answers (“There’s more dancing going on there than there is at ‘Dancing With the Stars’”) and his interjections to tell them to be honest (“I didn’t want to be the fourth moderator”).
As the New Hampshire voters around him clapped and laughed, Christie triumphantly recounted how he distinguished himself from the others, who sidestepped questions about Trump. He also mocked DeSantis’s suggestion that he would instruct border agents to shoot anyone coming from Mexico with a backpack “stone cold dead.”
But a 538-Washington Post-Ipsos poll of potential Republican primary and caucus voters who watched the debate found that 30 percent thought DeSantis performed best, followed by 23 percent who chose Haley and 19 percent for Christie. Debate watchers were more unified, however, in who they thought performed the worst, with 37 percent choosing tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and 31 percent picking Christie.
Christie also accused Haley of not honestly answering questions on topics including abortion, saying she avoided weighing in on the Texas Supreme Court’s decision to prevent a Dallas-area woman from getting an abortion after she found out that her fetus had a fatal abnormality that could put her future fertility at risk.
“She wants to make everybody happy,” he said. “… Beware of the person who won’t answer your question.”
Asked during the Newport town hall if it was disqualifying for Trump to say he would be a dictator on “Day One,” Haley said that’s up to voters and said she wouldn’t be a dictator.
“No drama, no vendettas, no whining is what you’ll get if I become president,” she said.
At Christie’s town hall, Dave Bregger raised his hand to ask the candidate to remind the others that Trump wouldn’t be able to vote for himself as a convicted felon.
“It’s ridiculous Trump is an option in the race,” Bregger told The Post. The registered Republican also thought suggestions that Christie should drop out were far-fetched.
“It’s far too early for that,” Bregger said, adding he believed Christie should stay in until Super Tuesday as the only “straight talker” in the race.
Christie is partly counting on disaffected Democrats who became independents and others unregistered with a party in the state to turn out and vote for him under New Hampshire’s open primary system. So is Haley.
“I’m counting on Republicans to come out,” Haley told reporters after her town hall this month. “But if we get independents, if we get conservative Democrats, that’s what the Republican Party should try to do. Our goal is to get as many people in the tent as we can.”
Nearly 60 percent of Christie voters say Haley is their second choice, according to a University of New Hampshire poll in November.
“If Christie drops out it would certainly help Haley,” said Andrew Smith, who directs the UNH Survey Center, which conducted the poll. “My assessment is they will go with the strongest non-Trump candidate, which right now is Haley.”
Asked how he thinks about his own calculus for staying in the race, Christie said the only clear metric is the point at which one candidate amasses the number of delegates to clinch the GOP nomination.
“The soul of this party and the soul of this country is worth fighting for,” he said. “And I’m going to continue fighting for as long it makes sense for me to fight.”