It was just a few weeks later that the trouble began—the revelations about the strong-arm tactics his aides had used to build that broad bipartisan appeal, threatening a Democratic mayor with “traffic problems” if he didn’t lend his endorsement. Bridgegate, as it came to be called, was a huge deal because Christie was a big deal. It consumed the national media for days. When, in January, he finally gave a long press conference to apologize and explain, the cable networks carried it live and breathlessly dissected it. Was Christie finished? they wanted to know. It seemed unthinkable.
These days, hardly anyone ever brings up the bridge. Is that because people have moved on? Or because he’s just not important enough to scare anyone anymore?
Down but not out, Christie ran for president anyway, even though this time no one was begging him to. The moneymen were mostly gone; Langone said he’d write a check, but not a big one.
Christie labored in the single digits in the polls. He talked about terrorism and entitlement reform. At one point, he didn’t make the main debate stage, appearing in the junior-varsity pre-prime-time stakes instead.
He camped out in New Hampshire, where he has labored for months to bring the magic back, inch by painful inch. He has made them laugh and made them cry. He has earned the endorsement of more local officials than anyone, plus the state’s biggest newspaper, the crusading, partisan Union Leader. He has answered their questions, over and over, in rollicking, sometimes combative town-hall meetings that can go for hours.
Around the beginning of the year, it seemed to be paying off. The polls, those elusive, meaningless barometers of the voters’ fickle moods, showed him moving slightly upward in New Hampshire. So naturally Newton’s third law kicked in, in the form of the super PAC backing Marco Rubio, which began airing advertisements showing Christie hugging Obama and ticking off his liberal positions.
Christie’s numbers zoomed back down. Rubio, meanwhile—the slender, athletic golden boy, he of the effortless charisma and spotty voting record—came in third in Iowa and was immediately hailed by the commentariat as the man who would single-handedly save the Republican Party from its chaos and torpor.
This was apparently too much for Christie. It was time for the big man to take matters into his own hands.
Over the past week, Christie attacked Rubio in starkly personal terms, calling him a sheltered lightweight and worse. “Maybe he’ll do more than 40 minutes on a little stage telling everybody his canned speech that he’s memorized,” Christie said in Bedford on Tuesday, voice dripping with disdain. “This isn’t a student-council election, everybody. This is an election for president of the United States. Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble.” He added, “It’s time for him to man up and step up and stop letting all of his handlers write his speeches and handle him.”