Chris Christie could be the man to beat Trump

The war between the two presidential contenders is a window into the messiness of the Republicans

Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie AP
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In June, when Chris Christie announced his 2024 presidential bid in New Hampshire, there were loud rumblings among the Republican Party faithful.

Mr Christie wants badly to defeat Donald Trump, who is leading the Republican race. And to do this, he has forcefully taken on the former president.

Yet, the former governor of New Jersey has a long history with Mr Trump. He was one of the first mainstream Republicans to endorse him, a very early backer, and then led his presidential transition team in 2016. When Mr Christie was elected governor in 2009, Mr Trump was in the front row of the inaugural mass.

These days, Mr Christie has emerged as Mr Trump’s leading critic, detailing why the latter, now indicted in Georgia, is unelectable. Mr Christie has been calling him a “failed leader” a “coward” and a “one-man crime wave”.

Donald Trump slams 'ridiculous indictment' as an 'act of desperation'

Donald Trump slams 'ridiculous indictment' as an 'act of desperation'

Mr Trump’s response was his usual vindictive self: largely directed at Mr Christie’s eating habits. “Christie is eating right now – he can’t be bothered,” he said to a baying crowd of supporters in New Hampshire.

In response, Mr Christie said Mr Trump was a “spoiled baby”. Later he posted on Twitter: “Breaking news ... I have struggled with my weight for 20 years. What I haven't struggled with is my character. I'll put that up against Donald Trump’s any day. If that’s the best he’s got, then he’s lost his fastball."

Mr Christie says his support of Mr Trump ended with the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. They have not spoken aside from slinging mud at each other. But the Trump and Christie war is a good window into the messiness of the Republicans. They are plagued by painful internal divisions. The party of strong and effective former presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Dwight D Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt, no longer exists.

Mr Trump’s Make America Great Again – or Maga – movement has been one of the main causes for the party’s break with its past. According to a study published by the University of Washington, Maga followers tend to believe conspiracy theories that include Mr Trump’s 2020 election was stolen; that Covid-19 is a bioweapon from China; and that the Capitol riot was the work of Antifa, a left-wing political movement.

But does Mr Christie have a chance against Mr Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to get the bid for the Republican nomination?

His greatest appeal to the voters is that he is a sensible bulwark against Mr Trump’s increasingly radical policies. He refuses to embrace “white grievance policies”. When he does attack Mr Trump, it’s not about his hair transplant or his supposedly tiny hands, but about his character.

Mr Christie goes after Mr Trump for what a number of Americans fear – a threat to their country’s democracy and constitution. Mr Christie believes that if Mr Trump is elected again, he will govern with an unprecedented authoritarian agenda. And that he will be vengeful against those who opposed him.

Mr Trump is way ahead in the polls right now, but using plain-speak and sensibility, Mr Christie could succeed at taking some of Mr Trump’s more centrist voters. There is an entire division within the GOP called the Never Trumpers, traditional Republicans who are appalled and horrified by Mr Trump’s behaviour and who have worked to keep him out of office.

What does Mr Christie believe in?

His policies include support for Ukraine – he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv this month and prayed at the grave of war heroes. Mr Trump, meanwhile, opposes more aid to Ukraine. This has also staked a clear position on an issue that has divided the GOP.

Both candidates are opposed on abortion, and both see exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. Mr Christie would not, however, support a federal ban on abortion, saying it should be addressed at state level.

He has also set himself apart from other GOP candidates who sidestep the question of the 2020 election by adamantly proclaiming: “The election wasn’t stolen. He lost."

A poll conducted by New Hampshire Journal published this month found Mr Trump receiving 43 per cent in New Hampshire, a key state, with Mr Christie and Mr DeSantis tied in second place at 9 per cent. Another poll, from the University of New Hampshire published in mid-July, found that 6 per cent of likely GOP primary voters picked Mr Christie as their first-choice candidate, behind Senator Tim Scott (8 per cent), Mr DeSantis (23 per cent) and Mr Trump (37 per cent).

But Mr Christie could build momentum. The first Republican primary debate, which will take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Wednesday, will be important. Mr Trump refuses to take part, which may give Mr Christie a chance to shine.

As of now, Mr Trump is the clear Republican frontrunner to face Joe Biden in next year’s election. But if somebody has to take down Mr Trump, Mr Christie could be the man to do it. He played a big role in taking down Senator Marco Rubio before the 2016 New Hampshire debate when Mr Rubio appeared to be coming on strong.

Between now and January 2024, when the Republican Party presidential primaries begin, the former Boss of New Jersey may go far.

As Peggy Noonan, a White House insider, wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal: “He is almost Trump’s equal in showbiz and he’s superior in invective, so he can do some damage … Would it be a suicide mission? I don’t know. But those kamikazes took out a lot of tankers.”

Mr Christie, who has been described as loyal, mouthy, combative and entertaining – and whose Political Action Committee is called “Tell It Like It Is” – is confident of his chances. “If I get into the race,” he said this spring, “I’ll make it interesting.”

Published: August 22, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: September 04, 2023, 10:08 AM