TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie’s Straight Talk Plan Hits Its Tax Speed Bump

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.
Darren McCollester—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.

Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to use straight talk to fight his way back into the 2016 Republican presidential primary has already hit its first snag.

On Tuesday, the New Jersey Republican proposed reducing or cutting Social Security benefits for future retirees who continue to earn money, an idea known as means testing. Under his plan, Social Security checks would be reduced for those who earn more than $80,000 a year in retirement and ended for those who earn more than $200,000.

Christie has framed the proposal as a much-needed burst of truth-telling on America’s entitlement programs. But it has already drawn criticism from some influential conservatives as a roundabout tax on upper-income Americans.

“Is it not, a straight-out wealth tax,” influential conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Christie Tuesday. “It’s a tax on people who accumulated wealth during their life, or inherited it, they might not have earned it, they might have inherited it, but it’s a straight out wealth tax, right?”

Christie defended the plan to Hewitt, saying, “What it is, is a recognition of the fact that this program needs to provide first and foremost for those people who need retirement security the most.”

Taxes are a tricky issue for Christie owing to his record as governor. Despite a no-new-taxes pledge as a candidate in 2010, he cut property tax breaks for many New Jersey residents shortly after taking office to close a budget shortfall—effectively increasing their rates. He also raised fees for many state services.

Asked by a reporter Wednesday whether he would be open to raising any revenues at the federal level, Christie said he would listen to all proposals.

“Listen, I think we need to change the tax system significantly,” he said, adding, “As I’ve said in New Jersey, I always consider everything. Everything is on the table for conversation. But I don’t think that the problem right now in America is that we are under-taxed.”

But even his openness to considering revenue increases puts him outside GOP orthodoxy, where signing the Americans for Tax Reform “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” pledge has become the norm. Christie has not signed the pledge, according to a database maintained by the group. (He’s not alone. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has also said he would not sign the pledge, drawing criticism from some conservatives who are still unhappy about his father’s record as president.)

It also breaks with recent history. In 2012, all of the Republican presidential candidates unanimously pledged to veto any deficit reduction plan that raised new revenues, even if 10 times the amount taken in was cut from the budget.

Christie has not exactly endorsed the idea of raising taxes, but for some conservatives, anything but all-out opposition signals squishiness on the issue. Still, he framed his thinking on the issue as more straight talk.

“I am a guy who is always willing to listen to anybody, but let me be clear, I don’t believe the problem we have in America right now is that we’re under-taxed,” Christie repeated. “And so the fact of the matter is when you’re a leader, you have to be willing to listen to everybody’s ideas, but my ideas, I’ve laid out very specifically how to fix the programs, which doesn’t include raising taxes. That’s not the way to fix this problem.”

Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist defended Christie Wednesday in an email to TIME, praising him as a acolyte of President Reagan.

“To date Christie has opposed and vetoed all tax hikes in New Jersey,” Norquist said. “Reducing a benefit is not a tax hike. Shame on any conservative who confuses spending cuts and tax increases. For a Northeast Republican he is very Reaganite.”

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie Pins Hopes for Revival on Straight Talk

Chris Christie
Jim Cole—AP New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. takes a questions during a town hall meeting with area residents in Londonderry, N.H., April 15, 2015.

For Chris Christie, it was a do-over of sorts. Laura Condon, a New Hampshire anti-vaccination activist, took the microphone at the Londonderry Lions Club to ask the New Jersey Governor if he would stand with conscientious objectors who want to opt out of vaccinating their children.

“Yeah, no, you can’t count on me for that,” the shirt-sleeved New Jersey governor said without missing a beat, surrounded by applauding voters in the first in the nation primary.

It was a much different response than he gave when a reporter asked Christie during a February trip to England. Then, his off-the-cuff remarks about balancing parent choice and public health led to criticism and a quick walk-back by his staff back in New Jersey.

But if Christie’s presidential ambitions can be hurt by his unscripted moments, he also hopes they’ll help revive his campaign. Dogged by lower approval ratings at home and overshadowed by his Republican rivals, Christie is pinning his still-unannounced campaign’s prospects on straight talk.

Wednesday’s event was the kick-off of his “Tell It Like It Is” tour, designed to put Christie into the fray in town halls, restaurants and rec centers across the Granite State.

Christie’s presidential ambitions depend on his success in interactions like this, modeled after former Sen. John McCain’s two successful primary campaigns in the state. He and his political aides are betting it all on his ability to break through in New Hampshire, as he seeks to resurrect his presidential ambitions following the fallout of the politically motivated closures of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 and a tough fiscal climate in New Jersey.

The town hall is Christie’s preferred format at home, where on Thursday he will hold his 135th since taking office, though they often feature high-octane interactions with those that disagree with him. Christie brought his swagger to New Hampshire, but he didn’t need it. He faced a capacity crowd of friendly faces, even dispensing his ritualistic recitation of his four rules for town halls, including the warning that “if you give it, you are getting it right back.”

And it worked on the vaccination critic.

“He was pretty harsh with his answer, but I don’t think he was disrespectful toward me,” Condon told reporters after the 90-minute event, crediting him with being “strong in his opinions.”

The interaction highlighted Christie’s core strength as a politician and all-but-certain presidential candidate—his confidence interacting with voters one-on-one, on topics of their choosing is second-to-none in the Republican field. Christie and his political aides are betting it all on his ability to break through in New Hampshire, as he seeks to resurrect his presidential ambitions following the fallout of the politically motivated closures of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge in 2013 and a tough fiscal climate in New Jersey.

On Wednesday, he faced questions on his new plan to reform Social Security and Medicare, the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran, and the rising cost of college tuition.

“We need to start having a national conversation with out colleges and universities about cost-control,” he said using his own family as an example. His eldest son and daughter are students at Princeton and Notre Dame respectively, and Christie said his tuition bills next year would top $120,000, drawing gasps from the audience. He suggested that future federal grant money be tied to schools’ commitment to keep education affordable.

He delivered a detailed response to a question about campaign finance reform, saying he believes that the best solution to repairing a broken system to allow unlimited donations with immediate disclosure.

“There shouldn’t be any restrictions on who can give how much to whom,” he said, “But there needs to be 24 hour absolute giving out of that information on the internet of who you are taking that money from.”

And he earned a round of chuckles mocking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose campaign and its affiliates are looking to raise as much as $2.5 billion to send her to the White House. “But she wants to then get the corrupting money out of politics…,” he said, referencing her promise to do the same in Iowa on Tuesday.

On his entitlement plan, which would raise the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security and means-test the programs, Christie sought to reassure a room heavy with seniors that his plan wouldn’t affect current or near-term beneficiaries. He added that some advisors tried to convince him not to give speech about entitlements yesterday, owing to Social Security’s mythical status as a ‘third rail’ of American politics. “I have to say this stuff because it’s true,” Christie said, earning another round of applause.

On immigration reform, Christie said he would prioritize border enforcement, but that building a border wall “sends a bad signal about who we are as a people.” He added that the debate over a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status is only prolonging immigration reform efforts.

“So let’s stop having this argument about a path to citizenship, because most of the folks that I’ve met want to work,” he said, not vote.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Wayne MacDonald said the performance reminded him of McCain’s 2000 and 2008 “straight talk,” which propelled him to victory in both primaries.

“New Hampshire is about retail politics—it’s about events like this one,” MacDonald, who has yet to endorse a candidate, told TIME. “The candidates who appreciate that process are the ones that do well and are the most successful, and certainly Gov. Christie demonstrated that today.”

Before the town hall, Christie visited Chez Vachon, the Manchester diner that has hosted dozens of presidential contenders over the years, where he was playfully ribbed by a table of seniors about the bridge closing and the ending of the HBO drama The Sopranos.

On Friday, Christie will be back in New Hampshire for another town hall at an Exeter sportsbar. “We’re doing a town hall meeting in a bar, because a guy from Jersey should do a town hall meeting in a bar,” Christie joked. The crowd ate it up.

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie Takes a Swing at Jeb Bush

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.
Darren McCollester—Getty Images New Jersey Governor Chris Christie holds a town hall meeting at Londonderry Lion's Club on April 15, 2015 in Londonderry, N.H.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for not providing more specifics on his foreign policy views, his most direct critique yet of his better-funded Republican rival.

In an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham Wednesday, Christie was asked whether he agrees with the Bush family record and its approach to foreign and domestic policy. “I’ll wait to see what Jeb is going to have to say about these things,” Christie said. “He’s certainly got a father and brother who have a record. And I don’t know what Jeb Bush is going to say about foreign policy.”

“The one speech that he’s given so far I thought was rather general and didn’t really give you any great insight into what he wanted to do,” he continued. “So let’s see what he’s got to say for himself. In the end, his record, and more importantly his vision for what the future is going to be is what is going to determine how credible of a candidate he is.”

Bush leads Christie both in fundraising and in national and early state polling.

Christie, who held his first town hall in New Hampshire Wednesday, noted that on Tuesday he delivered a policy speech on entitlement reform, the first of four addresses in the coming months. His foreign policy speech has yet to be scheduled.

“So if I decide to run for president, you can conclude that it’s because I believe that I’d be a better candidate for our party and a better president than Jeb Bush or anybody else who decided to run,” Christie added.

TIME Chris Christie

How Obamacare Makes Chris Christie’s Medicare Plan Possible

Chris Christie
Mel Evans—AP In this April 8, 2015 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering as he announces a $202 million flood control project for Union Beach, N.J.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would like to raise the age to qualify for Medicare, part of a bold plan to reform entitlements that he released Tuesday morning.

The proposal was greeted with cheers from many conservatives, but there’s a twist. The main reason that slowly raising the retirement age from 65 to 69 is politically feasible is a law that many conservatives hate: Obamacare.

That’s because working-class Americans who lose health insurance at work when they retire at, say, age 65, would instead be eligible to receive modest subsidies on insurance exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act. (Very low-income seniors could also sign up for Medicaid in some states or receive larger subsidies for coverage on the exchanges.)

“Obamacare soaks up the people who would otherwise be displaced by raising the eligibility age for Medicare,” said Avik Roy, a prominent Republican expert in health care policy who has argued that conservatives should use Obamacare to promote their own policies rather than repeal the law. “In the old days, if you raised the eligibility age for Medicare, then someone who is low-income at 65, but not eligible for Medicaid, are stuck in this gap, so what do you do?”

“But with [Obamacare], that safety net is there, so it’s much easier to raise the Medicare age,” added Roy.

But if retirees who, at 65, would have qualified for Medicare, which is relatively cheap, shift en masse to private insurance, which is relatively expensive, does Christie’s plan of raising the eligibility age actually save any money?

That answer has been hotly debated for years, since the cost of providing health care to 65-69 year-olds wouldn’t just disappear, it would shift to another part of the federal budget.

Some argue that it would save money, since the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act get smaller as seniors’ income rises, while Medicare serves seniors of all incomes the same.

“In general, raising the eligibility age for Medicare will save money for the federal government because seniors with relatively higher incomes wouldn’t be eligible for any other federal subsidies,” said Michael E. Chernew, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. “That’s the simple analysis.”

A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation study estimated that raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 would save the federal government as much as $5.7 billion in the short term. But it could also cost 65- and 66-year-olds $3.7 billion in out-of-pocket expenses, and employers $4.5 billion in retiree health-care costs. (And that’s to say nothing of how the policy could negatively affect the cost of Medicaid and Medicare Part B premiums, according to the Kaiser study.)

Chernew added that raising the Medicare age comes with other, more complex ramifications, including the type and quality of care available, and whether such a policy would encourage more older Americans to remain in the workforce for longer. Another part of Christie’s plan directly incentivizes Americans to keep working past the age of 65 by eliminating the payroll tax for workers 62 and older.

But the broader question is whether conservatives want to make use of the Affordable Care Act to make their own changes to the health care system or whether they want to repeal the law and start from scratch.

Roy, who has advocated for “transcending Obamacare,” argues that that Christie’s policy proposal is a smart political play. “He’s staking out ground as a credible, bipartisan entitlement reformer,” he said.

TIME Chris Christie

Chris Christie to Propose Changes to Social Security, Medicare

Chris Christie
Mel Evans—AP In this April 8, 2015 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addresses a gathering as he announces a $202 million flood control project for Union Beach, N.J.

He'd raise the retirement age and means-test benefits

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will unveil a proposal to change Social Security and Medicare Tuesday in a speech in New Hampshire, as he seeks to inject new life into his presidential ambitions.

The outspoken Republican’s political fortunes soured after last year’s controversy over the political closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge and a tough fiscal picture at home. But Christie is hoping that by embracing the third rail of American politics with two hands he can bolster his credentials as a truth-teller.

“Washington is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country,” Christie will say in a speech at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College Institute of Politics. “I am not.”

Christie will propose raising the retirement age for Medicare to 67 and for Social Security to 69, arguing that entitlement programs must be fair for all Americans, including the next generation that is paying into the programs while questioning whether they will ever see benefits.

In a controversial move, Christie would means-test Social Security, reducing or cutting payments entirely for those who continue to earn income in retirement. He will argue that he wants to return the program being a social insurance program, where only those who need the outlays will receive them.

“Do we really believe that the wealthiest Americans need to take from younger, hard-working Americans to receive what, for most of them, is a modest monthly Social Security check,” Christie will say. “I propose a modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income.”

To incentivize work as more Americans continue to hold jobs later into life, Christie would eliminate the payroll tax at 62.

Christie’s political identity stems from his willingness to take on powerful interests, such as his home state’s teachers unions, altering the calculus in favor of what for most other politicians would be an undeniably risky move. But Christie’s proposals stop short of radically altering either Medicaid or Social Security as some conservatives have proposed, staying away from the 2000s-era privatization debates.

TIME 2016 Election

Poll: Chris Christie Losing New Jersey Support for 2016 Bid

Chris Christie
Mel Evans—AP A person photographs New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a town hall meeting April 7, 2015, in Matawan, N.J.

69% of polled New Jersey voters think he wouldn't make a good president

New Jersey voters are losing faith in their governor’s potential to be a “good president.”

About 69% of New Jersey voters in a new Rutgers University poll say Gov. Chris Christie would not make a good president, a ten point leap from a February poll. About 24% say they think he has what it takes.

Christie is one of many Republicans expected to enter the race for 2016 in the coming months, joining Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida who have already announced their plans to seek the nomination. Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker are also expected to join the race soon.

Though the poll represents a relatively small sample of New Jersey voters and hosts a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, it offers a glimpse at how voters from New Jersey feel about their governor’s potential campaign.

Though 58% of those polled don’t think the word “presidential” at all describes the governor (38% say it describes him pretty well), the majority, 57%, believes he will still become a presidential candidate. Thirty-two percent, on the other hand, do not.

And while New Jersey voters are important for Christie, the real test will come in early primary and caucus states like New Hampshire, where the governor will begin hosting a series of town-hall events with voters on Tuesday.

TIME Supreme Court

New Strategy Against Gay Marriage Divides GOP 2016 Field

US Supreme Court Declines To Hear Appeals On Same-Sex Marriage Cases
Alex Wong—Getty Images People come out from the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Activists want to take on the Supreme Court

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa—The U.S. Supreme Court’s expected decision this spring that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry will, for most, mark the end of a decades-long culture war.

But a small circle of Christian activists aren’t giving up yet — and they are already winning over some Republican presidential candidates to their last-ditch effort. Resting their hopes on an effort to redefine the role of the federal judiciary, the activists’ argument takes on a central tenet of modern American politics: that the Supreme Court has the final say on what is the law of the land.

“There are three branches of government,” Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, told TIME in an interview. “If the Supreme Court overreaches on an issue, the other two branches are there to check and balance it. The Supreme Court can make that decision, but it can’t enforce its own orders in a state. That’s up to the Legislative and Executive branches.”

It’s an argument with a long history in American politics, Schlafly says. He cites the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the infamous Dred Scott case, which found that freed slaves were not American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in court. “The Republican Party said no, we’re not going to go along with that,” Schlafly said. “And the next President was Abraham Lincoln and he did not enforce it.”

Most mainstream constitutional scholars find that argument confounding at best, with criticism from both liberal groups and the conservative Federalist Society.

“It was established a long, long time ago that the federal judiciary has the power to interpret our Constitution and to determine what government actions are constitutional and what are unconstitutional,” said Jeremy Leaming of the progressive American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. “This is pretty basic law-school type of stuff.”

If the Supreme Court decides that same-sex-marriage bans violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, then that’s the end of the story, he added. “States can’t choose and pick which parts of the Constitution to uphold and which not to.”

But regardless of how the argument is received in legal circles, it’s already having a significant effect on the Republican presidential primary, where a number of candidates are working overtime to earn the support of social conservatives who are opposed to same-sex marriage.

Last week in Iowa, where evangelical voters hold particular sway, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee emphatically argued that the high court’s ruling would not be the end of the debate.

“There is no such thing as judicial supremacy,” he said at an event organized by the conservative Family Leader group. He added that “unelected black-robed judges” can overturn laws, but even when they do, “then it goes to the legislature and the Executive Branch.”

After a speech at the same summit, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum told TIME that he agrees with Huckabee. “The idea that the courts can just wave their magic wands and not only invalidate laws but pass new ones is a novel concept in the concept of judicial review,” he said. “The courts in my opinion have far exceeded their Article III authority and they need to be pushed back upon by both the Executive and the Congress.”

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who has argued nine times before the Supreme Court, stopped short of saying that as President he would refuse to enforce a high court decision that found same-sex-marriage bans unconstitutional, but he wrote in a paper provided to the Conservative Republicans of Texas that he would denounce such a ruling “for what it is. Lawless activism, subverting the Constitution.” He also called on conservatives to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as “limited to one man and one woman” and to consider removing any Supreme Court justice that had “disrespected marriage.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio has walked a similar tightrope. “Of course, court rulings must be respected, but it is the duty of the President to defend the Constitution, even when the courts won’t,” he wrote in a statement to Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul did not say that he would ignore a Supreme Court decision but called for term limits on “out of control, unelected federal judges.”

Other Republican presidential candidates have chosen to take a different route, noting their disagreement with state and federal courts’ pro-gay-marriage decisions without actively trying to undermine them.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said gay marriage was a “settled issue” in his state, while Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said court rulings must be respected. Both dropped appeals in their home states after losing same-sex-marriage cases. “For us, it’s over in Wisconsin,” Walker told reporters last fall. “The federal courts have ruled that this decision by this court of appeals decision is the law of the land, and we will be upholding it.”

After a Florida court declared same-sex marriage legal, former governor Jeb Bush said, “We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law.” All three governors have faced tough questions from some evangelical voters after conceding the fight.

Schlafly predicted that those candidates would lose support from the conservative Christian base in a Republican primary.

“I think voters are going to be extremely interested in whether a candidate is willing to stand up against overreach by the federal courts on marriage,” he said. “I think it will be a big issue — I think it will be the biggest issue.”

The Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage promises to have particular salience in the first caucus state of Iowa, where a powerful evangelical bloc has long pushed back against the idea of judges defining marriage laws. After the state supreme court ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2009, conservative activists led a successful campaign to deny three justices another term on the bench.

Some conservatives in Iowa are now hoping for a similar backlash against a federal decision. “It’s the Congress that makes the law, it’s the President that executes the law, it’s the people that can amend the Constitution,” said Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who hosted Huckabee, Jindal, Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry. “The courts don’t get to do any of those.”

Last month, Deace, the Iowa radio host, asked a slice of the broad field of potential Republican candidates — Cruz, Huckabee, Walker, Perry, Paul, Rubio, Santorum, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump — to respond to an essay by John C. Eastman, a conservative professor of law, in which he made the case for ignoring a Supreme Court decision that found same-sex-marriage bans unconstitutional.

Perry, Trump and Jindal did not respond to Deace’s query. Jindal told TIME that he would wait for the court’s decision before weighing in on potential next steps.

Constitutional lawyers on both sides of the ideological divide have pushed back against these arguments. “It’s just fantastical to point to Dred Scott and the Civil War in reference to these cases,” said Leaming of the American Constitution Society. “It’s fantastical and it’s also quite frankly irresponsible.” But for some, at least, it may be good politics.

Read next: Transcript: Read Full Text of Sen. Marco Rubio’s Campaign Launch

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TIME Chris Christie

Sights Set On New Hampshire, Chris Christie Looks For 2016 Reboot At Home

New Jersey Governor Christie speaks while being interviewed onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Maryland
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks while being interviewed onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

The New Jersey governor is down, but not out

BOCA RATON, Fla.—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie built his political brand around telling the tough truths—be they about teacher-­pension overruns, budget deficits or rebuilding hurricane-battered towns. And he is banking on that reputation to vault him from the statehouse to the White House. “We want folks as our nominee who are going to tell the truth,” he told a March gathering of top Republican Party donors at a waterside Boca Raton resort.

Yet just days after making his case in Florida, Christie was back at home dealing with a tough truth of his own. With his national poll numbers in the single digits, Christie’s presidential prospects have nearly collapsed, damaged by his staff’s role in the politically motivated closure of approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge, humbled by fiscal shortfalls in New Jersey and rattled by the rise of Jeb Bush’s campaign.

Instead of courting primary voters in Iowa diners or New Hampshire living rooms, Christie has spent much of the past months in New Jersey, working boroughs and townships like Kenilworth and Whippany to persuade state lawmakers to make another round of painful pension and benefit reforms. To make matters worse, indictments are still expected for a pair of former aides implicated in the bridge closures. Privately, Christie has confided in donors that running for President is harder than he thought, and he has pushed back an announcement until as late as June.

Christie’s competition, meanwhile, is racing ahead. After Texas Senator Ted Cruz tossed in his hat, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is gearing up for an April 7 announcement in Louisville, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio set to follow on April 13 in Miami. The field will get even more crowded later in the spring.

But advisers say Christie’s time on the sidelines is more strategy than surrender. The only change is the scale of the campaign he will run. When New York financiers begged him to challenge Mitt Romney in 2012, Christie thought his support would come from the moneymen who flocked to Bush. Now allies think the path to victory lies in an outsider campaign, heavy on spontaneity and town halls. “When he gets out on the stump, what people will find is that he relates to the average person better than anyone else in this field. He communicates better than anyone else,” says Mike DuHaime, Christie’s top political strategist.

The unstated model is Arizona Senator John McCain’s successful 2008 bid, and the path will head straight through New Hampshire. After a July 2007 implosion, McCain jettisoned staff and baggage as donors fled. But his New Hampshire–centric effort, complete with 100 town halls, won him the nomination. On Thursday, Christie hired his second full-time staffer in the Granite State, Matt Moroney, the statewide field director for Walt Havenstein’s 2014 campaign for governor, and he plans at least two visits in April.

Christie aides highlight exit polling from the past three competitive New Hampshire primaries, in which about half of GOP voters said they had made up their minds in the final week. “This thing is a roller coaster,” says Phil Cox, who is running the pro-Christie ­super PAC America Leads, part of an effort to raise $30 million. “Every candidate will have their ups and downs, and you need to peak at the right time.”

There is reason for hope on that front. Christie is still drawing support from Bush and Scott Walker donors—just in smaller amounts. Michael Epstein, a Walker backer from Rockville, Md., says Christie impressed him at the Boca retreat. “He acquitted himself well,” Epstein told TIME. “But he needs to prove he can go the distance.”

At his 132nd town hall, in Whippany in March, Christie sounded like a man eager to break free of the trappings of his office. “You go to the dry cleaner’s or you go to the deli, like I go with two black Suburbans and three state troopers,” Christie quipped. “It’s so subtle.” To make his comeback, he won’t have a choice but to leave that bubble behind.

TIME 2016 Election

GOP Donors Buoyant About 2016 Prospects at Retreat

Jeb Bush speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.
Mark Peterson—Redux for TIME Jeb Bush speaks at CPAC in National Harbor, Md. on Feb. 27, 2015.

Good news for the GOP, bad news for Hillary Clinton

Republican donors gathered at an exclusive retreat this weekend to compare notes on the 2016 presidential field and hear the candidates’ pitches directly.

The celebratory mood was palpable, buoyed by another strong fundraising month for the party, the impending launch of the primary contest and a spate of negative stories about Hillary Clinton.

Donors in custom pins designed by the party backslapped their way through the pinkish walls of the Waldorf Astoria Resort and Club, as many of the candidates they elected in 2014, and the ones they are hoping to elect in 2016 preened for their support. Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief strategist and communications director, said it was the “largest pre-nomination retreat in terms of both donor attendance and speakers.”

Throughout the weekend, the presidential contenders held private meetings with the assembled donors, broken into classes like “Eagles” ($15,000+), “Regents” ($60,000+), and “Team 100” ($100,000+). New this year, thanks to congressional action dramatically increasing donation limits to national parties, were the members of the “RNC Trust,” who have pledged to give the more than $330,000 legal limit annually.

The lavish resort is nestled between a golf course and a marina and across a sound from the beach, though the 36-hour conference was jammed with sessions on party data and messaging. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus sought to leverage the celebrity and celebration to plug the more mundane mechanics, as party staffers held briefings on technology and field program advances in the GOP since 2012. Pollster Frank Luntz held court in a session and Republican senators held a closed-door panel where they laid into the emerging nuclear deal with Iran.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio delivered well-regarded remarks Friday evening, highlighting their domestic themes of growing the party and criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy. Each, attendees said, was interrupted by multiple rounds of applause. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker focused his remarks on the economy, delivering, like the others, a modified version of his stump speech for the well-heeled audience.

On Saturday evening, New Jersey Gov. Christie called on the party to avoid flip-floppers in a pre-dinner reception before joining the Team 100 dinner, along with a coterie of Republican members of Congress. Texas Gov. Rick Perry rotated among the class dinners, while Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal addressed the post-dinner dessert. Former Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki attended the weekend gathering, as well as businessman Donald Trump, who spoke Friday evening and, according to multiple attendees, spent much of his speech trying to show off his connections to the assembled donors.

Among the members of Congress in attendance for the weekend were Sens. Cory Gardner, Pat Roberts, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, David Perdue and Deb Fischer and Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Renee Elmers.

A large number of benefactors remain on the fence, according to party and campaign sources, using the meetings to grill candidates on the issues important to them. In the hallways, donors shared notes from their private meetings, gossiping about Walker’s flip-flop on immigration reform, the burdens of Bush’s family name and Christie’s narrowing path to the nomination.

One donor, who has pledged five-figure sums to groups affiliated with at least three GOP candidates, said he and many of his peers believe it’s still a wide-open field.

“You want to get in on the ground floor,” said the donor, who didn’t want his name used to avoid attracting more suitors, “and so many of these guys can go all the way.”

TIME 2016 Election

Exclusive: Chris Christie Warns GOP Against Flip-Floppers

New Jersey Governor Christie speaks while being interviewed onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Maryland
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks while being interviewed onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Md. on Feb. 26, 2015.

The New Jersey governor reasserts himself in Republican presidential race after a slow start with a veiled criticism of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

BOCA RATON, FLA. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie warned the Republican Party’s top donors Saturday against backing a candidate who flip-flops on important issues.

Addressing a harbor-side reception Saturday at an exclusive retreat for donors to the Republican National Committee, the Garden State governor appeared to criticize Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, without mentioning him by name, for adjusting his positions to curry favor with early state voters.

“We need to make sure that we make our party bigger and broader than it’s been before,” Christie told a sunset gathering of about 250 donors who have given more than $15,000—and as much as $330,000—to the GOP. “And that’s not about pandering, it’s not about flip-flopping on issues.” Walker stood a few dozen feet away mingling with the well-heeled crowd. “People want folks who they believe believe in what they say and don’t change depending on what state they’re in,” Christie continued.

Walker, who has surged in the early polls at the expense of Christie, has come under fire for changing his position on immigration reform, as well as other issues, in a bid to appeal to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Last week, Walker denied being a flip-flopper on immigration, saying he was simply listening to the will of the people. Both Christie and Walker have backed away from their previous support of the Common Core education standards.

Christie, who is seeking to reassert his influence within the presidential field, said voters instead want politicians who will tell them the truth. “The fact is you don’t have to change your positions,” he continued. “I’m proudly pro-life and I’ve run twice as a pro-life candidate for governor in one of the bluest states in the country.” During his 2014 re-election campaign, Walker ran an ad announcing that despite his own pro-life beliefs he supported a an ultrasound bill that “leaves the final decision” of an abortion “to the woman and her doctor.”

Christie took another veiled shot at Walker, who has boasted in recent months that he succeeded as a Republican in a state that has voted for Democratic presidential candidates since 1984. Christie pointed out that the state of New Jersey also had deep Democratic roots. “There will be other states who will try to compete with us,” Christie said, “but I’ll just give you one statistic, we have not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 42 years. It is the longest streak of any state in the country.”

Also in attendance at the reception were former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and a host of members of Congress who won election in 2014.

Christie opened with a critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, saying French concerns about the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran highlight Obama’s failures. “America is less respected, less feared, and less effective than we’ve been at any time in recent history,” Christie said. “We know that that’s all the result of the fact that the President of the United States doesn’t know how to lead, has never understood how to lead, never understood strength.”

Referencing the RNC’s focus on data in the run-up to the presidential election, Christie said no amount of data could correct for a bad candidate. “The fact is our focus needs to be who is going to connect with the American people and all the American people, not just the one’s we’re used to connecting with,” he said.

Noting his efforts to reach out to Hispanic and Black communities in New Jersey during his re-election, Christie called on Republicans to make a more concerted effort to listen to those who traditionally vote for Democrats. “We need to start listening and showing respect to those constituencies that we want to have part of our team,” he told donors.

Christie also called on the party to show its humorous side, saying the party needs to show voters a path toward bettering their pursuit of happiness, and not just life and liberty. “We should have some fun too,” he said.

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