Chris Christie brought his Talking Truth to Donald Trump performance back to New Hampshire on Wednesday evening, aiming a fresh quiver of poison darts at the former president. His talk pleased a small Trump-skeptical crowd, but raised the big question about Mr. Christie’s candidacy: Where are all the other Republican voters?
For the most part, Mr. Christie was preaching to the choir. Submitting to more than 90 minutes of questions in a town hall format, he heard from an audience member who identified as a member of an extinct species, a “Rockefeller Republican”; from another who said he used to work for a Republican senator but hasn’t voted Republican since 2016; and from a woman who introduced herself by saying, “I’m a Democrat, and you intrigue me.”
At times the linoleum-floored room in a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Derry, with its circle of white folding chairs, took on the feeling of a therapy session for Republicans homeless in their party. “What in your opinion,” asked one man, “happened to the Republican Party? We know that Trump lied about the election, but why did so many of our fellow citizens believe that?”
Since announcing his campaign two weeks ago, Mr. Christie has had a modest lift in early public polls of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire, nudging into third place, though still far behind Mr. Trump, the front-runner. At the same time, Mr. Christie, who has positioned himself as Mr. Trump’s most direct critic, tops the list of 2024 candidates that Republicans say they will never consider.
Mr. Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who was an early and eager Trump endorser in 2016 and stuck with him in 2020, presented himself on Wednesday as the lone truth-teller in the G.O.P. field — criticizing Mr. Trump as unfit for office, while mocking other primary rivals as too cowed to even challenge the former president’s lies about the 2020 election.
“You want to beat the incumbent?” Mr. Christie said, meaning Mr. Trump. “Then you have to beat the incumbent.”
Ticking off a list of others in the race — Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott and Asa Hutchinson among them — Mr. Christie said: “They can’t win if they’re not going to make the case against him.”
He told voters to demand of every candidate, “Why are you defending the big lie that the election was stolen?”
Referring to a Fox News interview with Mr. Trump this week, Mr. Christie said, in so many words, that it presented an emperor devoid of clothing. He said “the most disturbing thing” was Mr. Trump’s answer to why he didn’t return classified documents after receiving a subpoena in a case that led to his federal indictment.
“His answer was I was too busy to go through all the boxes to comply with the grand jury subpoena,” said Mr. Christie, a former federal prosecutor. “I can guarantee that interview will be Exhibit 1 in the trial on the classified documents, because he essentially admitted to willful obstruction of justice.”
Mr. Trump “just sat there and told his lawyer to lie,” Mr. Christie continued. “This is not the résumé of somebody you need behind the desk in the Oval Office again, and our party can do better.”
There were about 50 people present, and about the same number of unfilled seats. A livestream of the town hall event never seemed to have more than about 125 viewers. A press contingent of about a dozen people spoke to the outsize interest in Mr. Christie’s campaign from the news media and pundits, because of the phenomenon of a mainstream candidate’s taking on a former president of his own party so bluntly.
Missing from the room, however, was the core of the Republican Party: voters leaning toward Mr. Trump who have propelled his rise in recent months, but who are still open to an alternative. Nearly all the voters present seemed to have turned their backs on Mr. Trump — a narrow slice of the primary electorate.
Mr. Christie took the fact in stride.
“I’ve been in this race for two weeks — two weeks — and I went from zero in New Hampshire to 9 percent, four points behind Ron DeSantis,” he said, citing a survey last week for NH Journal, a Republican-leaning news site. The poll also found that Mr. Christie topped the “no way” list for the state’s Republican electorate.
On the way out, Kerry MacDonald, a real estate title agent from Litchfield, acknowledged, “I will say openly that I was a Trump supporter” in 2020. “I realize that campaign is in absolute chaos.”
“I just don’t think he’s capable of unifying the party,” he said of the former president. “Governor Christie, on the other hand, he’s very well-spoken, he’s a direct candidate. I like the fact he’s worked both sides of the aisle as a governor. I’m feeling very strongly as I walk out tonight.”