Correction appended Jan. 31, 2016
The second best showman in Republican politics likes to speak in bars, where he always begins with a joke. "When you see me in a place like this, within 20 to 25 minutes, I become smarter and more charming and better looking," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said at the Chrome Horse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I guarantee by the time you walk out of here, you’ll be saying that guy should be emperor, forget President.”
Without fail, the crowd roars, and the show begins — an 80-, 90- or 120-minute emotional tour of the New Jersey governor's mind, filled with a jacket toss, wisecracks, personal stories, insults and a whole lot of attitude. It's almost Trumpian in its scope.
Christie is the only candidate whose performance this cycle approaches Republican front runner Donald Trump on the two vectors that Republicans have started to reward: alpha male macho bravado and sheer entertainment value. By contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio hues to his tightly controlled prose poetry, rarely drifting from the script — a fact that Christie loves to point out. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush tends to be wonky and self-deprecating, if not defensive. Texas Senator Ted Cruz stumps with the precision of an engineer in the body of a champion collegiate debater.
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Christie's style is something completely different, blustery, freewheeling and — dare we say it — fun. “I don’t want to call him a mini-Trump — he’s a big guy,” said Steve Michaud, a doctor from Dunbarton, N.H., who took in one of Christie's performances. “But I think the vein that Trump has tapped into, I think Christie taps into some of that, but on a more practical level.”
The problem for Christie is in the polls. He hasn't really been able to break above 3% in Iowa, and just 7% in New Hampshire, behind Ohio Governor John Kasich and Bush. Christie hopes that getting 1 point more than Bush in Iowa Monday night might help springboard him to victory in the Granite State, but that's still a long shot.
There is also a difference in crowd size. Trump has crowds of thousands, while Christie rarely gathers more than a couple hundred. But Christie doesn't seem to mind. He has found a way to enjoy himself, a pose that regularly impresses those who come out to see him.
When a man at one event shouted out a question on entitlements, Christie shut him down for misbehaving. "You know there's no yelling out questions. There's one rule! For a second, it was like I was back in New Jersey,” he added, before putting the man in time-out. He came back to him later, and they had a spirited exchange over Social Security reform.
When Christie was asked how he would handle Republican attacks should he win the nomination, he replied in Trump-esque fashion. "I’ve been hit before, and don’t worry, I hit back harder than I get," he said.
Indeed, for Christie, Trump is at once a model and a foil, and what hopes he has for winning the nomination come from emulating the best of Trump and rejecting the rest. "I’m looking for someone who’s more presidential, that’s why I don’t like Trump," said Pat Wright, of Cedar Rapids, who was eating nachos and sipping a Bloody Mary at the Chrome Horse. “I love his no-nonsense attitude. I like him because he’s a straight-talker.” Wright said he was choosing between Christie and Rubio.
“He’s a tough guy, which I like, but he’s not mean-spirited like Trump,” said Jim Craig, another Cedar Rapidian at the town hall.
At one point, Christie launched an exaggerated Trump impression about building a wall across the entire southern border — a plan Christie believes to be impractical. The crowd burst into laughter. "How come you laugh when I say it, and you don't laugh when he does?” Christie asked incredulously. “Let's see it Monday night then. I want to see a little laughter then for some of this ridiculous stuff that's been said.”
In another gag, he always takes two more questions when staff says take one. "I want them to remember who the boss is," Christie says, about his young aides. "The only place where I am safe from this tyranny of the young is right here," he adds, pointing to his stool and the crowd.
One of Christie's surest laughs comes in a familiar riff on college affordability and an "epidemic" of rock-climbing walls on campuses — a sign he says of wasteful university spending. "Some wise guy in the press wrote after I gave this talk, ‘Christie assault on college fitness,’” Christie likes to say. "Now, listen, look at me. I have assaulted fitness in many ways. That’s definitely not one of them.”
Correction: The original version of this story suggested that the news story about Christie and college fitness did not exist. It does exist.