All the marathon town hall meetings, the bar visits, house parties and time invested in New Hampshire finally seem to be paying off for GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie.
Poll after poll show the New Jersey governor making gains in the first-in-the-nation primary state. And his supporters say they feel a palpable surge in excitement as the calendar draws nearer to Feb. 9: primary day.
“It’s electric,” said Barbara Sheehan, a New Jersey native who now lives in Tuftonboro, after hearing Christie speak. “You can just feel the momentum, it’s in the air.”
Christie and his team seemed eager to show off their progress this weekend, when they kicked off a four-day bus tour across the state inside a cavernous automotive garage. After a parade of high-profile endorsers sung Christie’s praises, the governor and his family made a dramatic entrance, pulling into the garage aboard a bus emblazoned with his name and new campaign slogan — “Tell it Like it Is”— as music from “Star Wars” played.
Beyond the shiny new wheels, Christie’s team also shipped 120 supporters in from New Jersey to fan across the state, knocking on doors. The move added manpower and helped boost his crowds. But also highlighted that he’s significantly understaffed in the state where he has staked his campaign.
“There’s a big difference between paid staff and having to pay people to go door-to-door,” Christie told journalists gathered in the town of Derry. “We’ll do more work than paid staff has done in a month in a weekend, because people are committed to it and we know how to do this.”
Christie has been lining up endorsements, but he is lagging many campaigns in fundraising, meaning that now, leading into the primary, he has less than a quarter of the manpower of some of his rivals.
While a robust ground game is less important in New Hampshire than in early-voting Iowa, where voters must attend time-consuming caucuses, Christie currently has just four paid staff in the state.
That’s far fewer than former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has 20 full-time staff spread across five offices and Ohio Gov. Kasich, who has 11 full-time paid staff and expects to have five offices up and running by the end of the year.
Florida Sen. Rubio, meanwhile, has eight paid staff, while poll-leader Donald Trump has 13 working out of four offices.
Still, Christie banked on his charm to win votes, traveling the state to meet the people that could make or break his campaign.
At Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester on Sunday, Christie joined customers to chat as they finished their meals.
“Nobody’s listening to us in Washington,” complained Manchester’s Joe Rolka, who works in sales.
“I’m here to listen,” Christie told him as they spoke.
When Christie moved on, Rolka said he was impressed by the governor’s unguarded approach.
“After talking to him today, I’m on board. He can have my vote,” said Rolka, who’d been on the fence between Christie and billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who has been leading the state’s opinion polls.
Joel Maiola, a Christie supporter from Bedford who managed President George W. Bush‘s campaign in the state in 2000, said that he could feel the buzz growing for Christie’s campaign. He said he made his final decision about a month ago, after taking a serious looks at Kasich, Bush and Rubio, who are all competing for moderate voters. He said he thinks Christie’s time is now.
“It’s now to the point where people are making up their minds,” he said as he waiting in the bitter cold for Christie to arrive at a local bar Sunday. “If you were any candidate going into the Christmas break, you’d want to be Chris Christie.”
To be sure, Trump remains the dominant force in the state, drawing thousands of people to his events.
A recent Franklin Pierce University-Boston Herald poll found Trump to be the favorite of 26 percent of likely Republican voters, more than twice the backing of his closest rival. But Christie is now vying for second place, earning the support of 11 percent of voters in that poll, versus 12 percent for Rubio and 12 percent for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Christie’s favorability ratings are also on the rise, with 64 percent of voters now holding a favorable impression of him — up 18 points since October.
But the momentum is also attracting new scrutiny for the New Jersey governor, who had been largely ignored by his rivals up until this point.
Former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who is now working with a pro-Trump super PAC, told The Associated Press last week that he is looking to run ads highlighting Christie’s record in New Jersey. And Christie, who has been trying to move past the George Washington Bridge scandal that badly damaged his reputation at home, has begun to draw more criticism in debates.
There’s also the reality that Christie, who has lagged behind many of his rivals when it comes to fundraising, is badly outgunned when it comes to staff.
Still, Christie continues to display his usual swagger. Asked how he would be able to compete in the final stretch and get people out to vote, he appeared unfazed.
“Because we’re better,” he told reporters between stops this weekend. “We’re better and we know how to win.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.