Gov. Chris Christie bounded into T-Bones restaurant in Bedford, NH, at suppertime on Friday. He held hands with a 102-year-old woman, signed some baseballs and took a bunch of cellphone selfies.
Technically he was there to campaign for Walt Havenstein, a New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate. But in reality, at least as far as the contingent of reporters was concerned, he was laying the groundwork for 2016, when New Hampshire is scheduled to hold the nation's first presidential primary.
Asked if that was really the reason he was there, Christie responded first with sarcasm.
"Absolutely not, how dare you!" Christie said. "Fact is I've told everybody around the country everybody looking forward to 2016 now is foolish."
But potential candidates are already visiting here almost every week and a Fox News reporter has been stationed here for almost a year. Experts say the race began months ago.
Adding to the speculation: Christie started the day in Washington, speaking at a religious right conference where he trumped his pro-life bona fides and slammed President Obama for being weak on foreign policy.
Polls show that Christie and a bunch of other guys are all in the top tier of contenders in New Hampshire. The good news for Christie is that personal contact, like town hall meetings, are crucially important here — and that’s where the governor is so effective, taking questions and talking on his feet. The bad news is that he’s from New Jersey — many Republicans say they just assume he isn’t conservative enough because he’s from a blue state.
Issues that he’s taken conservative positions on in New Jersey — guns, abortion, gay marriage — are actually liabilities here. Republican voters say that rejecting Democrats’ bills aren’t enough. They want him to have actually been more pro-active, like rolling back gun laws and fighting gay marriage all the way up to the state Supreme Court.
Bridgegate has wounded him here, but not mortally. Some say it reflects poorly on his leadership style and indicates a highly political way of doing business. But it’s in the rear view mirror for many — they speak about Bridgegate in the past tense, as if investigations weren’t still going on, which they are. Some see it as a media conspiracy, which makes them more sympathetic to him than they may have been before.
But the flurry of scandals that have cropped up about the Christie administration in recent months have still permeated the consciousness in New Hampshire. One voter referenced the allegations from Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer that Christie officials threatened to take away Sandy aid from her town if she failed to approve a development deal: "He denied people hurricane relief for political favors, and I thought that was kind of messed up."
Others were less informed. One asked: "Didn’t he allegedly create a traffic jam to keep people from voting or something?"