Chris Christie’s Uphill Run for President Relies on His Brash Touch

But today, a staggering 55 percent of Republican primary voters say that they cannot envision voting for Mr. Christie, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, a remarkable deficit from which to embark on a national campaign. The only candidate less palatable: Donald J. Trump, the bombastic developer-turned-reality television star.

With two pillars of his presidential run — his record and his judgment — looking wobblier than ever, Mr. Christie must build a campaign around his most raw and prodigious asset: his personality.

It will be on vivid display on Tuesday, beginning at 11 a.m. in a high school gymnasium in Livingston, where Mr. Christie, 52, the son of a Sicilian mother and an Irish father, grew up and first tasted politics as president of his class.

Brash and big, by turns compassionate and cruel, Mr. Christie’s persona — a magnetic mix of quick-witted charm, insult-trading banter, vulnerability, empathy and effrontery — affords him, without question, his clearest advantage in a sprawling field of Republican rivals.

It comes together in a presence that Mr. Christie has sculpted, to a degree few politicians ever have, during a remarkable run of 137 town-hall-style meetings, from the working-class bungalow communities along the Jersey Shore to the wealthy suburbs of New York City. In highly ritualized, often raucous 90-minute question-and-answer sessions, he has deployed the full range of his skills, moods and whims.

He has berated public school teachers in loud tirades and crossed rope lines to give consoling hugs to people in grief. He has told disarmingly personal tales about his parents, his marriage and his weight, and denounced a young military veteran who had the temerity to challenge him, calling him “an idiot.”

“Damn, man, I’m governor, could you just shut up for a second?” Mr. Christie yelled after the veteran left the room.

That combative charisma, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, “is not to be underestimated.”

It allowed him, in a state where the Legislature is dominated by Democrats, to overhaul New Jersey’s tenure system for public school teachers, adopt a cap on the rate of property tax growth and pass a “Dream Act” that grants in-state college tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants.

But Mr. Christie has done little to lift New Jersey’s economy out of its doldrums: Unemployment remains higher than the national average; economic growth lags most of the country; pension deficits, which led to repeated credit downgrades, remain startlingly deep; and major portions of the state’s transportation infrastructure are in tatters.

Then there is the recent traffic scandal, which led to indictments. An aide and appointees were accused of a conspiracy in shutting several lanes of traffic approaching the George Washington Bridge to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for his failure to endorse the governor’s re-election. Mr. Christie has denied any wrongdoing and disavowed any knowledge of the retribution scheme.

“He does not have an enviable record of governance,” Ms. Harrison said. “He does not have a whole lot he can point to as successes in the policy realm. But what he does have is an ability to spin both his record and his political reality in such a masterful way that it means he remains a contender.”

It is perhaps no wonder that Mr. Christie plans to put the town hall meeting at the center of his candidacy, and center his candidacy in a state, New Hampshire, that is famed for its own town hall meetings.

He is forgoing the customary tour of early-voting states that usually follows a formal announcement, aides said. Instead, Mr. Christie will plant himself in New Hampshire for a week, holding one town hall after another, starting Tuesday evening.

Such single-mindedness belies the serious and stubborn vulnerabilities of his campaign.

As a centrist candidate from the Northeast, he would have an exceedingly narrow path to the Republican presidential nomination under the best circumstances. But circumstances are anything but optimal for him: He faces a wide field of candidates, including several who are better financed and more beloved by mainstream donors (Jeb Bush), hold greater appeal to conservative voters who dominate the primary process (Scott Walker), are agile public speakers with persuasive biographies (Marco Rubio), or are better liked by Republican voters (all of the above).

At his announcement, Mr. Christie will seek a political rebirth, as he has before, by relying on his powers as a teller, and mythologizer, of his own story.

Using notes and a hand-held microphone, advisers say, he will invoke his grandmother’s arduous commute to work at the Internal Revenue Service, which required two bus rides, as he tries to relate to middle-class voters. He will depict his governorship as a noble battle to take on intractable problems and daunting crises. And he will cast himself as the rare politician willing to deliver unpleasant truths about the excesses of American life and the sacrifices required to rein them in. (His campaign slogan: “Telling it like it is.”)

The question for Mr. Christie, after a bruising year of watching his story rewritten by others, may be whether Republican voters, who can choose from among a long and intriguing list of fresher faces, will look past his own excesses, and give him a fighting chance to sell himself anew.

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