As the reported death toll in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris rose dramatically on Friday evening, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was attending a chili supper for the Story County Republican Party in Iowa.
After taking the microphone to address the crowd, Christie said that, like many others in the room, the attacks in Paris reminded him of 9/11 and the threat of terrorism that still existed in the world. He shared vivid memories of 9/11, recalling how he felt when he sat with his children wondering if his wife, who worked two blocks away from the World Trade Center, was alive that day.
He also reminded the audience of how they felt when former President George W. Bush responded and the confidence they had in his ability to handle the unprecedented attack.
“Why did we have so much confidence as a nation when it happened? That President George W. Bush would be able handle it?” he asked, referring to the aftermath of 9/11. “I suggest it’s because that during the campaign, we got to know the measure of his character and who he was.
He reminded the crowd that during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush was never asked about a massive terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon using hijacked passenger air planes, but that Bush proved that he had the character needed to lead the nation through the crisis.
“Even though he never had that specific question, we knew that he had in his heart and in his soul the ability to deal with that crisis,” he said.
Christie went on in great detail discussing how his mother helped mold him into who he was as a person – telling voters that he was a hard worker who spoke the truth. The moment illustrates exactly how Christie is approaching his renewed campaign effort in Iowa, spreading his message through smaller events, and sharing his story in an intimate setting.
There were fewer than 100 people at the chili supper, but Christie gave a 50-minute speech peppered with personal anecdotes about his family his parents, and the people who made him the person he is today.
Reporters who have covered Christie know the story of his mother and the discussion he had with her before she died, but he uses the story to emphasize to voters that his bluntness and directness comes from her, a woman that had a profound impact on his life.
They also know the story of his children, and how he is committed to spending enormous amounts of money to allow them to attend collage, even though he questions the way it is being spent. And they also know the story about how drug addiction destroyed the life of one of his friends, making the issue a personal one.
“That’s who I am,” he explained at the end of his speech. “You’re never going to have to wonder, if you make me president of the United States. You’re going to know everything I’m thinking, everything I’m feeling. You’re going to hear it, and you’re going to see it.”
That’s Christie’s strategy for building support in Iowa, criss-crossing the state with a series of small events and meetings – not leaving it entirely up to a media filter.
Christie held nine events in Iowa last week, surpassing those of other Republican candidates who dropped by the state after the nearby debates in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Christie obviously needs to work harder, as the last CNN poll of Iowa voters showed the governor polling at only 3 percent.
But that doesn’t discourage him, as he employs his successful “diner strategy” that helped him win two elections in New Jersey.
On Friday, his first event of the morning was at J’s Homestyle Cooking in Cedar Falls. As patrons finished plates of eggs, bacon, omelettes, hash browns, and pancakes, they sat back and sipped coffee while Christie addressed them in an informal setting.
“It seems like every time I turn on the news lately, and when I think things can’t get worse, they do,” he began in a conversational style, hours before the attacks in Paris took place. “When you look at what is happening around the world, I think this is the most dangerous time we’ve been in since the time right after September 11th.”
He spent the day answering questions about immigration, foreign policy, tax reform, government regulation, and poverty. One person even asked him whether he would select Rep. Trey Gowdy as his attorney general if elected president.
“Listen, he’s a good guy, but I’m not going to pick Attorneys General or Vice Presidents or anything else until all the votes are counted,” Christie joked in response to the question, as the audience laughed. “I’m a superstitious man … if you start counting the chickens before they are hatched, everybody, you wind up going home early, I’m not going to do that.”
After the event, Christie drove with his staff for two hours in a tan Chevy Tahoe to Johnston, Iowa, a Des Moines suburb, to open up his Iowa headquarters.
Before the event, Christie sat for an interview with Breitbart News, explaining why he was feeling good about his campaign, even though it had just suffered a blow after nationwide polling sent him to the undercard Fox Business debate.
Sitting at a desk in one of the offices in his new campaign space in Iowa, he explained why he took his debate demotion in stride – and didn’t pick a fight with the RNC over the debate process or the media criteria for the debate.
“That’s just who I am,” Christie shrugs. “This is tough enough without moaning and complaining about it.”
Christie got more time to speak to an audience of about 5 million people, but it also opened himself up to more attacks from the lower polling candidates like Governor Bobby Jindal.
“I think as long as you get the opportunity to be on the stage, and the cameras are on, and the media is watching, and a lot of folks are watching, you have an opportunity to make an impression,” he said.
Complaining about debate rules, he explained, wasn’t the right way to impress voters in the long run. “Nobody votes for the guy that kicks dirt at the empire. They don’t like that guy,” he said.
But he admitted that using national polls as the criteria for the debates was probably not the best way to sort through the candidates who would appear onstage.
“How you’re doing in Iowa and New Hampshire is much more relevant than how you are doing with 400 Republicans nationally,” he said.
Christie has focused most of his time in New Hampshire, instead of a national strategy, reaping a boost in political support after spending over 40 days campaigning in the state and hosting over 30 town halls.
The latest New Hampshire poll shows him tied with Bush at eight percent support – ahead of Ben Carson and John Kasich.
His Iowa strategy is already different from opponents who made a short campaign swing in the state after the debates. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump hosted larger events in auditoriums, delivering a quick speech before they headed down to Florida for the “Sunshine Summit.”
In his interview with Breitbart News, Christie pointed out that the biggest challenge in his presidential campaign was patience, working the ground game even if the success of his efforts wasn’t always apparent.
“The hardest part of this stuff is to remain disciplined, and patient, and to persevere, over the things that get put in front of you,” Christie said. “I just got to keep plugging away.”
Christie understands what it’s like to keep working in the face of long odds, particularly after running a surprisingly successful race in New Jersey when he challenged Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine. Christie openly admitted that he was a much more relaxed candidate than he was then, now that he has experienced a win.
“In ’09, I had never been through anything like that, so I was struggling to find my way the whole time,” he admitted.
At the time, he recalled reaping the results of a surge of Tea Party activists that helped him get elected in the state. He pointed out that the concerns in the country had only grown stronger as more people in country grew more concerned about what was happening in Washington.
During the interview, Christie spoke with Breitbart News about how he didn’t support the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill, criticized President Obama’s Trans-Pacific trade deal, and addressed the growing anti-police sentiment in the country.
“I think the electorate in general is more frustrated,” he said. “I think that affects Tea Party folks but also affects religious conservatives, affects more mainstream conservatives. It affects everybody because we sent a Republican congress down there and they haven’t done anything,” he said.
Tea Party members, he suggested, were only getting more involved in more issues that they cared about, identifying with issues like illegal immigration as well as issues of taxes and spending.
“It’s not the same as it felt six years ago in 09,” he said.
That’s why Christie wants to answer every question on as many diverse topics as possible, not allowing questions at town halls to be vetted or filtered by his staff.
As he criss-crosses both Iowa and New Hampshire, he is feeling more confident with his performance on the trail, especially after spending time listening to voters.
“I just feel like I’m getting better at it, because I’ve been doing it more,” he said. “I think as with anything else the more you do it, if you have some talent at it, the better you’re going to get.”
After the interview with Breitbart News, Christie stepped out of his office where Iowa maps were framed by large cardboard cutouts of his head and campaign signs.
“I’m a little disconcerted by those big heads of mine on the wall,” he joked, gazing at the walls of the newly decorated office. “I’m working my way through it.”
He thanked his supporters for coming, noting that the media had branded him as one of the “joyful” Republicans campaigning.
“I really am enjoying myself,” Christie said. “I don’t look at this as a burden, you’re not going to hear me out there complaining … it should be hard, because the presidency is hard, especially if you do it the right way, working every day to stay in touch with the people who put you there.”
He explained to supporters why he was focused so intently on a campaign push in Iowa.
“I feel this race turning in our direction now, especially in these last two weeks,” he said, referring to his debate performances in the past two debates and the video on drug addiction that went viral. “It’s forcing everybody to take a new look at our campaign.”
He reassured voters that he was ready for the moment, citing the media spotlight that would swing back in his direction if he gained new momentum.
“When the spotlight turns on you, either you shine or you melt,” he said. “I’ve had the bright light on me for six years. I can guarantee you this much, I’m not going to melt.”