(CNN) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poured everything he had into New Hampshire, clawing his way up the polls in a crowded field and Donald Trump-dominated year while tainted by scandal back home.
And Marco Rubio threatened to take it all away.
In the last few weeks before Tuesday’s primary, and under fire from Rubio and his super PACs, Christie became pre-occupied with the Florida senator. Christie’s criticism of the candidate grew increasingly sharp behind closed doors, according to people familiar with the conversations. He would see a Rubio interview or read a story featuring Rubio and complain to staff or supporters that he simply did not see the appeal. He listened to Rubio provide canned quotes in each debate and, when attacked, refuse to look Christie in the eye during his response, Christie told people. It was a sign of weakness — and a sign of a weak candidate — in his view.
By Saturday night in Goffstown, New Hampshire, after Rubio’s surprising third-place finish in Iowa, everyone knew what was coming, Rubio included.
“Marco, the thing is this,” Christie said at the ABC debate at St. Anselm’s College. “When you’re president of the United States, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person.”
Asked the next day how Rubio could’ve missed what was coming, Christie resorted to “the great political philosopher Mike Tyson,” the famous former world heavyweight-boxing champion. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face,” Christie told reporters.
Christie, after all, had been getting punched in the face for two years. He could now take credit for wounding a candidate he and his team viewed as unprepared for the job. But that would be the extent of his accomplishments in New Hampshire. Tuesday night, he received his own knockout blow, finishing sixth in New Hampshire. Wednesday, he threw in the towel.
The story of Christie’s rise and fall in the state where he pinned all of his hopes is based on interviews with more than a dozen of his advisers, donors, fundraisers, supporters and rival campaign aides. In the end, Christie could not get past both his own personal baggage and his status as another governor of a moderate or blue state selling his personal appeal during a general election campaign to a Republican base clearly looking for new blood.
New Hampshire-based strategy
Once considered a front-runner in the 2016 sweepstakes, a litany of policy decisions back home in New Jersey, combined with the federal investigation into a politically driven bridge closing crafted by his staff in the governor’s office, had marred his hopes — so much so that many top Republicans wondered whether a run was worth it at all.
And in a race dominated by GOP outsiders like Trump, a governor touting his experience, a la Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, John Kasich and George Pataki, wasn’t a strong sell.
Christie announced his candidacy knowing full well that he had a lot of ground to make up. With a group of top-tier advisers, he went to work early crafting a strategy to vault himself back into the GOP top tier.
That plan revolved around New Hampshire, following the tradition of the state’s successful candidates: come often, work hard, shower the state’s politicians with attention (or, in Christie’s case, never-ending text messages) and the rest will take care of itself.
He would spend more than 70 days in the state, holding 160 events and 60 town halls.
But as the months moved along and Donald Trump upended every campaign’s initial plans, the topline strategy inside Christie’s team evolved into a multi-part bank shot — one that even they would admit needed breaks to succeed.
On paper, it was perfect: First, Christie would use his deep connections to popular Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad to harness a better-than-terrible showing in Iowa. Then, he would go back to New Hampshire, where his campaign and its supporting super PAC had invested a majority of their resources in on-the-the ground work and television advertising to turn flagging favorability ratings upside down. Finally, he’d have a big debate night, and close the deal with the historically (and frustratingly) late-deciding voters in the state.
A strong showing Tuesday would then open the doors to their extensive supporter and donor networks — a deep-pocketed group wary of sending a first-term senator like Rubio to the White House.
As the chairman of the Republican Governors Association in 2014, Christie helped elect seven new GOP governors and divvied up extensive financial resources — to the tune of $100 million — to help 17 others gain re-election. Prove his viability and those investments in time and money would come home, his advisers predicted.
By mid-January, it all seemed to be working. Christie’s approval ratings had jumped as many as 20 points in Granite State polls. His town halls became events in themselves — each bigger than the next. His campaign and supporting super PAC saw the events register so well that they became the basis of many of their television ads — a straight-talking governor with real experience, who had notched a sweeping re-election victory in a traditionally Democrat-leaning state.
David Sacks, an independent voter from Hollis, vividly remembered his first interaction with Christie at a friend’s house.
“He grabbed me immediately,” Sacks said. He left the event saying to himself, “Man, this is the guy,” he recalled. “Why not Christie?”
Attacked from all sides
But the liabilities never dissipated. New Jersey’s economy, while on the upswing in recent months, had been bleak for much of Christie’s tenure. Opposition research, shared with CNN from multiple campaigns, was extensive on areas where Christie allegedly took positions that broke with Republican orthodoxy.
One aide in a rival campaign put it succinctly: “We all saw his rise — it was very real — but we were never worried. We knew a week of negative ads would bring him back down to earth whenever we wanted.”
That’s exactly what happened.
Super PACs supporting Bush, Rubio and Kasich unloaded on Christie, attacking him on his state’s acceptance of Common Core on education, the Bridge-gate scandal and past statements on gun control and abortion.
Rubio himself started reading, theatrically from a piece of paper pulled from his pocket, Christie’s press release that appeared to make it look like he supported President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.
Within weeks, Christie’s favorability ratings nose-dived and so did his poll numbers. Meanwhile, Christie’s financial picture continued to worsen. He closed 2015 with a little more than $1 million to spend. While money was still coming in — a series of fundraisers in January brought in seven figures, according to two people familiar with the process — it wasn’t nearly enough to challenge the seemingly endless attacks that were coming his way.
His foray into Iowa fell flat, even with the extensive Branstad connections and two campaign stops with the governor himself. He logged the 2% he’d been polling at for months and in the process, frustrated donors by undertaking a six-day swing through Iowa — time that could have been spent working relatively unopposed in New Hampshire.
Going after Rubio
Days before New Hampshire voters went to the polls, Christie was struggling to stay in the conversation, falling into the mid-single digits and struggling to rediscover the message that connected. From that, the plan became: attack Rubio.
The initial attack was always in the plans, but just how personal it got was not, according to aides. During the drive to his New Hampshire campaign headquarters in Bedford, he made clear that while he was resolved to launch his first salvo, he would stay away from personal attacks.
At an arranged meeting with reporters after he greeted volunteers, he almost succeeded. He started by saying it would be an “interesting week” for Rubio and went through his practiced lines about the dangers of first term senators. But as the question and answer session was about to end, something clicked in Christie. He proceeded to launch into a three-minute personal indictment of Rubio’s lack of political talent, reliance on advisers, inability to do retail politics and general lack of life accomplishment. He punctuated each attack line with a new nickname for Rubio: “the boy in the bubble.”
The backstory is both strategic and personal for Christie. Rubio came out of Iowa with the wind at his back — so much so that members of Christie’s team received calls from certain party stalwarts that appeared to hint that it was time for Christie to drop out and the party to coalesce around Rubio. Christie, who had been swiping at Rubio for weeks in town halls, wanted to cut off the Florida senator’s rise before supporters and, more importantly, donors started to flee.
Christie had a good idea that he’d pulled off what he pledged to do at Saturday night’s debate, but he wasn’t sure. It was none other than Donald Trump who confirmed what Christie thought during the first commercial break. “Wow. That was tremendous,” Trump said, grabbing Christie’s arm, according to a source familiar with the exchange. His next stop was a check-in with his wife, Mary Pat, standing off the stage. She echoed Trump’s analysis.
The 72 hours that followed comprised of part victory lap — it was clear Christie had frozen the post-Iowa rush of donors and supporters to Rubio — and part urgent campaign push to lock in the voters falling away from the senator.
The campaign’s internal polling showed a consistent uptick in Christie’s numbers, but more and more, things were shifting toward Bush and among, undeclared voters, Kasich. While Christie did the work everyone in the race was hoping for, it increasingly looked like he wouldn’t be the candidate to benefit.
Christie was convinced after Saturday that the race had been flipped on its head — no longer was finishing first among governors the metric. Instead, it was survive and advance, get to the next debate and try for another big moment. Then CBS News released its criteria to qualify for the next debate. Only the top five in New Hampshire would move forward. By 10 p.m. on primary night, it became clear Christie would do no better than sixth.
As Christie walked to the podium in the ballroom at a Radisson hotel in Nashua, he remained convinced that he had connected with the people in the state — and appeared to be genuinely surprised he didn’t do better. It had become clear to him and his team that people had gravitated to his message.
“I have both won elections that I was supposed to lose and I have lost elections that I was supposed to win,” Christie said. “And what that means is you never know, and it’s both the magic and mystery of politics that you never quite know when which is going to happen even when you think you do.”
For weeks as primary day approached, Christie would close his town halls with a story from one of his first events in the state. As Christie told it, he was approached by an elderly man after he wrapped up. The man was effusive in his praise for Christie. He liked what he had to say, he liked his positions and overall he was ready to vote for him. But he wouldn’t, the man told Christie. Then he turned to walk away.
“Wait — sir, tell me what I did?” Christie would recount to the chuckling audience. The man turned around slowly and informed Christie he hadn’t done one crucial thing: ask for the man’s vote. Christie quickly did just that.
The voter’s response: “Too late.”