WINDHAM, New Hampshire — Chris Christie tried to be the adult in the room.
The former New Jersey governor launched his second presidential campaign in June with an uncharacteristic mea culpa for enabling Donald Trump’s rise in 2016 and a belief that Republican voters were ready to move on in 2024. It even seemed like he had shed the righteous anger that he rode to national prominence a decade ago.
But as Christie stalled out in New Hampshire, the state in which he was staking his campaign, the cracks in this persona started to show in recent weeks.
He began snapping at town hall attendees for suggesting he should drop out. He slammed the state’s venerated Republican governor, Chris Sununu, as a “liar” for predicting the end was near for his campaign. And, after spending months chastising his rivals for focusing on each other instead of Trump, Christie began to do the same.
It ended on Wednesday with a return to form — Christie caught on a hot microphone minutes before announcing his exit from the race, eviscerating the candidate he was ostensibly stepping aside to aid, Nikki Haley, by saying she was “gonna get smoked.” It was trademark Chris Christie: bluntly dragging a political opponent while pumping himself up.
“Those of us who survived him in New Jersey know what he’s really like,” said Pat Colligan, the president of the New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which feuded with Christie when he was governor. “When I travel the country and I see law enforcement, they say ‘Oh, he’s a good guy,’ and I’d say, ‘Not really.’”
Part of what made Christie a star of the right in the Obama era was his willingness to take on public sector unions like the PBA and his gruff demeanor. But the environment around him has shifted so drastically that there seems to be no room for any of the versions of Christie that the public has seen during his two White House runs — not the elder statesman, not the truth-teller and definitely not the Trump ally-turned-critic.
“He’s a victim of his own ambitions and he obviously is functioning in a party that has no room for him or no respect for him,” said Loretta Weinberg, the 88-year-old former New Jersey state Senate majority leader who often clashed with Christie during his eight years as governor — with him once asking reporters why they didn’t “take the bat out” on her during a policy dispute.
Weinberg — who called Christie’s exit speech “excellent” — added that she enjoyed watching him take on Trump, but “with every poll I came across, people on a visceral level don’t like him.”
One of Christie’s closest allies and the chair of his allied super PAC, Bill Palatucci, said in a statement that Christie will remain an honest voice not just for Republicans but for “everyone concerned about America’s place in the world, the runaway deficit and the rule of law which is the foundation of the republic.”
Jon Bramnick, a Republican New Jersey senator and longtime ally of Christie’s, said the news media attention on Christie narrowly focused on his role as a Trump critic and that overshadowed other aspects of his candidacy.
“No one was talking about his substantive comments about America and what had to be done,” Bramnick said. “That’s why it maybe looked like he was different.”
Christie earned a reputation in New Jersey politics as a tough-talking politician who eschewed decorum. He created his own viral moments as governor, including telling a heckler to “sit down and shut up,” calling a Democratic lawmaker he disagreed with “numbnuts” and labeling a Navy SEAL who kept interrupting him an “idiot.”
He was combative with the Statehouse press during his two terms — at one point pushing what critics dubbed a “revenge bill” against newspapers that would have scrapped their lucrative government-mandated advertising. And he unsuccessfully attempted to oust the Republican son of a mentor and popular former governor from his leadership position in the Legislature in a politically motivated move.
But the version of Christie who reappeared on the campaign trail in New Hampshire last spring appeared to be more repentant than rash. He was a Trump bludgeon. But he also seemed to regularly express self-realization.
“If you are in search of the perfect candidate, it is time to leave,” Christie said when he kicked off his campaign at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College in early June. “I am not it.”
Some voters were immediately wary of this new version of Christie, openly distrusting whether the former Trump ally could really function as his chief critic.
But others found him a refreshing voice of reason in a GOP primary where the other candidates were loath to say anything negative about Trump.
“Christie is a voice that we need to hear and we need to continue to hear from him,” Toni Pappas, the Hillsborough County Commissioner and a member of Christie’s steering committee in New Hampshire, said in Windham on Wednesday. “He’s a true American.”
Christie took the role seriously — so seriously that in Trump’s absence from the debate stage, the brash brawler who eight years ago publicly humiliated Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in front of millions of viewers ended up fading into the background without a foil.
But he was also a deeply unpopular candidate delivering a message that few in the GOP wanted to hear. Survey after survey showed him with some of the highest unfavorable ratings in the Republican field. His support among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters never climbed out of the teens. Trump, meanwhile, remained dozens of percentage points ahead.
And it was Haley, who was starting to break away from the pack, who won the coveted endorsement of the popular Sununu and surged into second place — in some surveys within striking distance of Trump.
Soon enough, Christie was facing a dilemma: Keep training his fire solely on Trump, or acknowledge the reality that to have any shot of taking on his former friend one-on-one, he would have to go through Haley.
And so Christie took on split personalities — defending Haley on debate stages from personal attacks from entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy while accusing her on the campaign trail of flip-flopping on abortion and being too deferential to Trump.
The more Christie was backed into a corner — by polls, by the voters who saw those polls, and by the anti-Trump Republicans pleading, publicly and privately, with him to get out — the more he fought.
As Sununu went on network news shows and local radio programs to turn the screws on Christie, calling his campaign “dead in the water” and saying any ballot cast for him would be a “wasted vote,” the former New Jersey governor began to take bigger swings back — going so far as to tape a local television interview the night before he dropped out blasting Sununu as a “liar” for suggesting the end was near.
Those frustrations culminated on Wednesday in the hot mic moment that went viral.
“She spent $68 million so far, $59 million by DeSantis, and we spent $12 [million]. I mean, who’s punching above their weight and who’s getting a return on their investment?” Christie said. The private conversation, with former New Hampshire GOP Chair Wayne MacDonald, a longtime supporter and head of his state steering committee, and Christie’s wife, Mary Pat, was picked up on the live feed of his dropout speech.
“She’s gonna get smoked,” Christie said. “You and I both know it. She’s not up to this.”