Christie Splits With His Past in Backing Trump

Even for a polished performer such as Mr. Christie, the interview on ABC’s “This Week” was an awkward balancing act, as he was repeatedly confronted with videos from the campaign trail in which he excoriated and mocked Mr. Trump. It was a wince-inducing spectacle for some of Mr. Christie’s supporters to witness, and the aftermath was made worse when Mr. Trump, on CNN, repeatedly declined to condemn the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, its former grand wizard. (Mr. Trump later posted a video on Twitter in which he disavowed Mr. Duke.)

But Mr. Christie’s carefully calibrated endorsement of Mr. Trump — though not all his policies — reflected the competing impulses he and many of his supporters are now feeling, as Mr. Trump’s brand of resentment politics resonates and he enters Super Tuesday the favorite to win the nomination.

The governor’s decision, which caught some of his closest supporters off guard, has nudged some of his allies to do the same, horrified others and created a loyalty test that is forcing many to confront which runs deeper: their devotion to the governor or their unease with Mr. Trump.

For Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a surrogate in Mr. Christie’s campaign, the choice was clear. In a blistering statement Sunday, she called his endorsement of Mr. Trump “an astonishing display of political opportunism.”

“Donald Trump is unfit to be president,” Ms. Whitman said. “He is a dishonest demagogue who plays to our worst fears. Trump would take America on a dangerous journey. Christie knows all that and indicated as much many times publicly. The governor is mistaken if he believes he can now count on my support, and I call on Christie’s donors and supporters to reject the governor and Donald Trump outright. I believe they will. For some of us, principle and country still matter.”

Many of Mr. Christie’s backers were more reluctant to criticize him so bluntly. But there was an unmistakable sense of shock among his allies that he would link himself to a candidate many mainstream Republicans consider unserious if not a menace to the party and country.

“I remain close to Chris, but I don’t get it,” said Bobbie Kilberg, a Northern Virginia technology executive and one of his leading fund-raisers. Ms. Kilberg is now supporting Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Ray Washburne, Mr. Christie’s finance chairman, was just as confounded. Asked if Mr. Christie was risking his reputation for being an inclusive-minded Republican by supporting Mr. Trump, Mr. Washburne said: “That’s sure what a lot of people think. I’m still shocked and dismayed.”

But then he quickly added, “I’m loyal to Chris,” and said he was mostly surprised that the endorsement had come so soon.

Still, Mr. Washburne said it had prompted emails and text messages from fellow donors, with some asking him how they could get on board with Mr. Trump and others asking in distress, “What is going on with Chris?”

Mr. Washburne, a Dallas-area entrepreneur, indicated he was uncertain about whether he would support Mr. Trump. But he gave voice to the calculation many believe Mr. Christie has made: “If Trump wins, Chris will have been the first guy who jumped on the boat with him.”

Some of Mr. Christie’s supporters joined him: Gov. Paul R. LePage of Maine came out for Mr. Trump, and Kraig Paulsen, the former Iowa House speaker, said in an interview that he was “absolutely open” to Mr. Trump.

Bt among the political strategists who supported Mr. Christie’s presidential bid, there was palpable unease.

Tucker Martin worked for the “super PAC” that supported Mr. Christie, but last week joined the conservatives expressing blanket opposition to Mr. Trump with the hashtag #nevertrump.

“I was honored to support Governor Christie, and I believed he would make a great president,” Mr. Martin said. “But I absolutely and unequivocally disagree with his endorsement of Donald Trump.”

The governor made his decision after little deliberation with his staff. Only one adviser, William J. Palatucci, accompanied him to Texas for Friday’s endorsement. Mr. Washburne said he found out only about 30 minutes before the news broke in a phone call from Mr. Palatucci.

“This is why you should not make decisions in anger,” said one friend of Mr. Christie’s, who asked for anonymity to talk candidly about the governor’s decision to back Mr. Trump.

Mr. Christie, according to those who have spoken to him, does not think Mr. Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are qualified to be president and believes Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who aggressively sought his support and with whom he is friendly, has no path to the nomination.

In New Jersey, the reaction to Mr. Christie’s endorsement has been a combination of surprise and, among Democrats, thinly disguised glee. Mr. Christie invested considerable political capital at home reaching out to minority groups, often offering tart words for those Republicans who he thought were closed-minded.

“It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies,” he said in 2011 when conservatives questioned his appointment of a Muslim to a state judgeship.

Mr. Trump’s hard-right brand of politics is unlikely to play well in a suburban, moderate state that has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate in nearly three decades.

State Senator Richard L. Codey, a Democrat who was a former governor of New Jersey, said he was stunned, despite Mr. Christie’s previous praise of Mr. Trump. “I kept saying to myself, when he was sucking up, that’s about legal work or something down the road,” Mr. Codey said. “Now it’s just like — oh, geez. I don’t know where this guy can go where he’s not going to be booed.”

But so far, at least, New Jersey Republicans have stuck with Mr. Christie. Jon M. Bramnick, the Republican leader in the State Assembly, said he was conferring with other party leaders about the presidential race but expected to follow Mr. Christie’s lead in backing Mr. Trump.

Mr. Bramnick, a potential candidate for governor in 2017, said he believed Mr. Christie’s endorsement was based on his friendship with Mr. Trump.

“I intend to support the governor’s choice here, because Trump has the most nexus with New Jersey,” Mr. Bramnick said. “He has golf courses here. He knows New Jersey pretty well. There’s no real connection between the other candidates and New Jersey.” It was possible, Mr. Bramnick said, that Republican leaders would make a move en masse in the presidential race as soon as this week.

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