- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Rebelling against being pigeonholed as a Republican presidential candidate who can compete only in New Hampshire, Chris Christie has revved up his campaign in Iowa, betting that voters will think his brash style and New Jersey swagger are more “Iowa nice” than the bluster from front-runner Donald Trump.

As the New Jersey governor barnstormed across Iowa Thursday, he said his campaign is on the verge of a breakout before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses Feb. 1. Furthermore, he insisted that he is not a “fish out of water” in this rural outpost where voters are famous for their polite dispositions.

“We’ve always had a strategy that if we develop a good organization here, which we have, that we are going to compete here,” Mr. Christie told The Washington Times after a town-hall-style meeting at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

He noted a string of endorsements from business leaders and political heavyweights in Iowa, as well as backing from the political team behind Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad.

“We are competing in Iowa, and we are going to try to do well here,” he said. “If Terry Branstad, who has never lost an election in Iowa, if his political team, his last two campaign managers, his chief of staff and his top six fundraisers all think that I’m good enough to support in Iowa, I’ve got a pretty good track record and feel pretty good about it.”

Over the years, Mr. Christie has cultivated an image as a tough guy in New Jersey politics. He gained national attention and plaudits from fellow Republicans when he shouted down and scolded in public his foes from teachers unions.

That’s not conduct that usually goes over well in Iowa. But this year even voters in the Hawkeye State have flocked to Mr. Trump despite his penchant for name calling and mean-spirited tweets.

When asked about Mr. Trump by a voter during a question-and-answer session at the community college, Mr. Christie launched into a lengthy explanation of why the billionaire businessman and TV star is not suited for the White House and would be dangerous if elected president.

“If you don’t have experience and haven’t done it before, you’re not going to want to see what’s next,” he said. “You think things are bad now? Just wait. It will get worse.”

He predicted that Mr. Trump and the other front-runner, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, will tumble when Iowans give them a closer look in the weeks before the caucuses.

Mr. Christie is near the bottom of the list of contenders in recent polls, including in Iowa, where a CNN survey last week showed him in eighth place with 3 percent of the vote, far behind Mr. Trump with 25 percent and Mr. Carson with 23 percent.

Still, Mr. Christie’s likability ratings have risen, making him one of the most-liked Republican candidates if not the most popular on the survey ballots. He also received a burst of positive attention for his heartfelt pleas to make drug addiction a top issue.

The governor also benefited from a strong performance in a debate Tuesday in Milwaukee, where he was bumped from the main event because of low poll numbers and relegated to the early undercard forum. But Mr. Christie nevertheless thrived on the smaller stage, demonstrating his debating prowess and dominating the discussion.

Mr. Christie’s manner remained blunt and sincere at the town-hall meeting. He argued that his experience in New Jersey made him the best candidate for the White House.

He warned about the crises of entitlements and debt facing the country and how he would fix them, including by gradually raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits.

Saying he wouldn’t trust the federal government to raise Social Security taxes to shore up the program’s dwindling finances, Mr. Christie used his New Jersey persona to make a point and get a laugh from the crowd.

“Why would you give more money to a group of people who already lied to you and stole from you on the promise that this time they are not going to lie to you and they are not going to steal from you?” he said. “Listen, maybe it’s because I’m from New Jersey and I’m a little more cynical than most, but I think the people of Iowa are very discerning also.”

The roughly 50 people who attended the town hall at the community college responded warmly to Mr. Christie, and several potential caucus-goers said they appreciated his blunt comments about Social Security and Medicare, which Mr. Christie has made a cornerstone of his agenda.

Some drew distinctions between Mr. Christie and Mr. Trump that favored the governor.

“He’s forceful, but he’s not obnoxious,” said Dale Moore, 68, a retired engineer. “He comes across like a leader. We need a leader, and he knows how to work with both sides.”

Julie Copeland, 46, an administrator at the community college, said Mr. Trump also is an appealing candidate because of his outspokenness. But she added that “some of the things that come out of his mouth scare me a little.”

Mr. Christie said he understands the widespread “anger and disgust” with Washington that has motivated voters to back Mr. Trump, but added that they would regret sending something to the White House who does not have any political experience.

Mr. Christie, who has been friends with Mr. Trump for more than a decade, said he told him to his face that he was not the man for the job.

“I’ve said, ‘Donald, you don’t want this job. This does not play to your skill set. If the speaker of the House does not post one of your bills, you can’t fire him,” said Mr. Christie, drawing laughs and nods of approval.

He predicted that support for Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson will plummet as the nominating contests get closer.

“I don’t think people have thought about it in great depth,” said Mr. Christie. “Those of us who are also in this race are counting on the people of Iowa and New Hampshire, now that Thanksgiving is coming and Christmas is coming, we all start thinking about the fact that [Mr. Trump‘s] sentiment is a good sentiment but anybody can burn a building down; not everyone can rebuild it.”

He stressed that he has the utmost respect for Mr. Trump as a businessman and a friend.

But the governor insisted that he, not Mr. Trump, had the political skills necessary to get the job done.

He touted his success as a Republican governor working with a Democrat-run legislature for the entire six years in office, including reforming the state pension system and teacher tenure, capping property taxes and balancing every budget without tax increases.

“I know how to stand up [to Democrats] when I need to, but we’ve also made a lot of deals,” said Mr. Christie. “You have to have the experience to know how to do that.

“You can hire any dummy to do a demolition job. Anybody can swing a hammer and demolish something. You hire very different people to swing a hammer to build something,” he said. “I would suggest to you is you want someone who is not part of Washington, D.C., who actually knows how to build something, knows how to do something.”

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