Chris Christie Is Stealing John McCain's Playbook

Down in the polls, the New Jersey governor is camping out in New Hampshire and focusing on national security as he tries to rebuild momentum for his flagging campaign.

GOFFSTOWN, New Hampshire—The Straight Talk Express has returned to New Hampshire, except with a different conductor: Chris Christie. Like John McCain in 2008, the New Jersey governor is holding lengthy town halls, sounding an unmistakably aggressive note on fighting terror overseas, and bluntly calling for radical reforms to entitlements, the tax code, and education at home as he seeks to make a miraculous comeback from the political doldrums.

Any Christie comeback will need to happen in the Granite State, which the governor has all but made a second home since exploring a presidential campaign. On Monday, he made his ninth visit to the state, where he attended a freewheeling town hall at a local pub, appeared at a supporter's home for a house party, and the next morning headlined the business-centric Politics and Eggs breakfast. He received an enthusiastic reception at all three stops, with over 100 attendees packing into the Village Trestle pub to press Christie. At the pub, a banner promoting his appearance read: "Real. Honest. Direct. Tell It Like It Is."

Most significantly, he staked out space as one of the most hawkish candidates in the field, choosing to focus entirely on national security in his 15-minute remarks Tuesday to a Chamber of Commerce crowd usually more interested in talking about fiscal issues. The day before, Christie slammed Republicans who opposed renewal of the Patriot Act—singling out Rand Paul by name for harming the country's defenses. "I will guarantee what they did in D.C. last week is making the U.S. weaker and more vulnerable. And they did it because of politics," Christie thundered. "If you listen to Senator Paul and Senator [Mike] Lee and these other guys down in Washington, you'd think I'm listening to the calls of your mother—that operatives at the NSA are listening to your phone calls. We don't [do that]! But yet you're taking this tool away."

Sounding like a McCain protégé, Christie called for additional military spending, increasing the scope of surveillance and intelligence, while warning about the threat of another terrorist attack. "Moves by Congress this week, led by members of our own party, to weaken America—to me was a national disgrace. And be assured, as someone who's done this work, America today is weaker and more vulnerable than we were two weeks ago," Christie said.

Like the town hall meetings in New Jersey that raised Christie's prominence, the governor relished the back-and-forth with voters on issues ranging from tackling the rising cost of college tuition to the growing threat of ISIS. He offered detailed prescriptions on entitlement reform while reminding attendees that he was willing to broach controversial issues without fear. "Here's the one thing you'll get with me: You never have to wonder where I stand," he repeated at several stops.

Christie's altered, policy-heavy approach is in sharp contrast to the message he'd been planning to utilize after winning a landslide reelection in deep-blue New Jersey. Before the bridge scandal darkened his political future, his team planned to pitch the governor as a no-nonsense, pragmatic executive who made inroads with key Democratic-leaning constituencies—women, Hispanics, and African-Americans in a liberal state. After making a national name for himself as a conservative straight-talker, he veered to the middle as he prepared for reelection, seeking government largesse for Hurricane Sandy recovery, embracing President Obama, and slamming his party's conservative wing in the process. Indeed, his campaign's relentless courting of Democratic mayors contributed to the Bridgegate scandal; shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge was allegedly punishment directed at a Democratic mayor for not backing the governor's reelection.

In his revamped pitch as an underdog, Christie focused much more on offering conservative policies for deep-seated challenges. To tackle the rising debt, he called for increasing the retirement age and cutting Social Security benefits for the wealthy. To raise educational standards, he pitched lengthening the school day and year. He dismissed raising the minimum wage, arguing it does little to raise most Americans' standard of living. During the trip, he sparingly made reference to his electability, with his sagging approval ratings back home making that argument more difficult. He repeatedly noted that he was going to speak the truth as he saw it, no matter what the politics dictated.

Christie's aggressively conservative message comes with the race as wide open as it's ever been in New Hampshire. Jeb Bush, once perceived as the front-runner in the race, underscored his campaign's rocky start by replacing his expected campaign manager this week. One GOP operative in the state noted that long shot Carly Fiorina was securing nearly as much early support from state political insiders as the leading candidates, a sign of the crowded field and tumultuous start to the race. Christie, whose bluntness and centrism are a good match for the state's politics, is counting on a comeback by virtue of his tenacity.

"I wrote Christie off completely over a year ago. But being the front-runner is like the kiss of death, and the field has gotten a lot more crowded since," said former state employment commissioner Richard Brothers, who hosted McCain's final town hall in 2008 before his victory in that year's New Hampshire primary. "He's gone from being the inevitable nominee to being the freshest face. He's willing to answer every question directly instead of skirting the issues."

Christie's biggest challenges, however, remain formidable. His favorability ratings in national polls continue to be among the worst of the GOP presidential candidates, as he's dogged by questions about his ethical conduct back home and his conservative credentials in the early states. The national hype that boosted Christie after his reelection was entirely absent from his latest trip. Only reporters from New Hampshire and his home state were in attendance to cover his events; I was the only Washington-based reporter there. One campaign spokesperson boasted that they were allowing press to cover the house parties that often remain private.

"If you can't change people's minds, why bother campaigning? That's what campaigns are for, to change people's minds. And that's why it's dangerous to be a front-runner," Christie told National Journal. "I've been that at times, and now I'm in the middle of the pack. People's minds are changed frequently."