NASHUA, NH—When Chris Christie told his son he would be in New Hampshire this weekend, the kid's reply was exactly the kind of pointed retort that has made his dad famous.
"Your new home state," the governor's son jabbed.
As Christie has sunk in the polls and faded from the top tier of presidential contenders, he's betting his still-unofficial presidential hopes on this northeastern state with a famed streak for elevating underdogs. He took two trips here last week and held the first two of what he says will be many town halls, the freewheeling format where his brash, no-nonsense personality first helped him break through on the national stage.
But if the format and location were familiar, Christie's message was new.
On Tuesday, he detailed plans to overhaul Social Security and Medicare. By grabbing hold of what has long been considered the third rail of American politics, Christie hopes to rekindle his reputation as a truth-teller. Perhaps more importantly, his political team thinks the entitlements gambit will allow the blue-state Republican to finally find a way to move to the right of a conservative GOP field.
"We need to have strength and clarity and hard truths. And that's why I started by talking about entitlements," Christie told a crowd of hundreds of activists at a Republican Party summit in Nashua on Friday. "There is no political advantage to talking about those issues."
But Christie, of course, was finding an advantage by doing just that. He issued a warning to his would-be Republican rivals who lean on the vagaries of cutting waste, fraud, and abuse. "What amazing leadership," Christie mocked. "Anybody who comes up here and says that, boo them off the stage." Christie is billing his own appearances across the state as the "Tell it Like it Is" tour.
"I think it was courageous," said Juliana Bergeron, the Republican National Committeewoman for New Hampshire, of Christie's specifics. "A lot of people said a lot of things here, but they didn't say what they'd do."
Talking entitlements, Christie's political team hopes, will help the more moderate governor break through with primary voters in an unusually crowded field of far-right conservatives. And they appear to be betting that New Hampshire, with its small 1.3 million population, is where Christie will make his stand.
Christie barnstormed the state after his initial entitlements speech, with nine organized events over three days—and that doesn't include the impromptu stops, like working the crowd outside Ben and Jerry's on free-cone day. His talent for retail-level politics is almost unrivaled in the GOP field, pulling college Republicans in for selfies here, grabbing the shoulders of potential supporters with two-handed authority there. "Man," one Republican walked away beaming after shaking Christie's hand in Nashua, "Chris Christie's got a great grip."
Still, Christie faces headwinds back home as he tries to make inroads in New Hampshire. There have been reports that indictments loom in the scandal surrounding the closure of bridge lanes and New Jersey's credit rating was downgraded for a ninth time last week.
And nationwide, polls indicate he has a problem with the GOP base. In Iowa, where social conservatives are dominant, 46 percent of expected GOP caucus-goers said Christie was too moderate for them, according to a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll earlier this year. It was the highest figure in the field. Nationally, 49 percent of self-identified conservatives had an unfavorable opinion of Christie, and only 28 percent saw him favorably in a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey.
Christie's embrace of entitlements has already affected the race. Days after Christie's proposal, Jeb Bush said in Manchester that he would support raising the Social Security retirement age. Marco Rubio talked about the idea here in Nashua. And Mike Huckabee came out against it.
Democrats were downright giddy about the issue's sudden emergence. "God bless Chris Christie if he wants to lead Republicans down this path," said Brad Woodhouse, president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC that tracks Republican candidates. "Once they've done it, we'll have them on record in the general election."
For Christie, it was a chance just to be back in the conversation. In the last 16 months, the New Jersey governor has gone from being an early GOP front-runner to more of an afterthought. Bush's entry robbed Christie of his natural base—not just in the GOP establishment class, but the Wall Street financiers who could underwrite his campaign. More ominously, a growing faction of Republicans simply doesn't like him. A March Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll had 57 percent of Republican primary voters saying they couldn't see themselves backing Christie.
Today show host Matt Lauer pointedly asked Christie last week if his moment had passed. "I don't know," Christie replied, "and neither do you."
Christie is betting his comeback hopes on the combination of New Hampshire town halls that showcase his charisma ("Nobody threw a beer at me," he congratulated himself at the end of a town hall at a pub in Exeter) and the notion that he's bolder than the rest of the field when it comes to entitlements.
"The real idea is not to say, 'Like, well, I think we should do something on Social Security, and I'll get back to you.' These are real ideas," Christie said. "And, you know, I've had a lot of people say, 'Well, why would you possibly want to suggest those things?' Because we have to—we have to. If you want to start a national conversation, let's start one that matters."
Christie's plan would eliminate Social Security for individuals with more than $200,000 per year in retirement income and would cut benefits for those earning $80,000 or more. The retirement age would rise to 69. Payroll taxes for seniors who choose to work would be slashed. Wealthier seniors would have to pay more for Medicare, and the eligibility age would rise.
"I'm not looking to be the most popular guy in the world. I'm looking to be the most respected one," Christie said. "And the way you do that is by putting out real ideas."
In the GOP field, though, he is looking to be the most popular guy. And putting out a real idea—a conservative one—is underpinning his efforts to do just that.