New Hampshire disappoints Christie

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Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie exits his SUV outside the polling place at Webster School on Feb. 9, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

NASHUA, N.H. - Gov. Christie bet on New Hampshire and lost.

Christie poured most of his campaign resources into the Granite State to try to emerge as the top governor in the presidential primary, to challenge Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as the establishment candidate to beat.

Christie finished a disappointing sixth out of the eight Republican candidates remaining in the race.

He was unable to surge past former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who also made significant efforts in New Hampshire and may have benefited from Christie's takedown of Rubio in Saturday's debate.

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Should Chris Christie drop out of the presidential race?

If Christie doesn't go on, "he will go down in history as one of the great blocking backs," David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama, said Tuesday on CNN.

For someone who staked so much on New Hampshire - from making repeat trips here in 2014 on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein, while serving as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, to spending more than 70 days in the state in the run-up to Tuesday's primary - Christie saw remarkably little payoff.

He was subdued as he told supporters in a hotel ballroom in Nashua that he would return to New Jersey on Wednesday "to take a deep breath," instead of going on to South Carolina.

But he stopped short of dropping out, saying he would make a decision "based upon the results tonight," and what was best "for my family, for my state, and for my country."

"We came here to say that speaking your mind matters, and experience matters, and competence matters. And it will always matter," said Christie, who was joined by his wife, Mary Pat - tears visible in her eyes - and their four children.

Christie said he had "won elections that I was supposed to lose, and lost elections I was supposed to win."

"What that means is, you never know," he said. "It's both the magic and mystery of politics. You never quite know which is going to happen, even when you think you do. . . . We leave New Hampshire tonight without an ounce of regret."

Christie congratulated Donald Trump - and silenced a boo from the crowd. "Winning's never easy," he said. The "people have spoken very clearly."

Christie, the first New Jersey politician to run for president since Democrat Bill Bradley in 2000, quickly gained national attention during his first term for his battles with unions and unfiltered speaking style.

The political brawler was all but drafted to run for president in 2012 by party elders such as Henry Kissinger and donors who believed Christie was the GOP's best hope to defeat Obama. Yet the governor found a decidedly less welcoming audience when he did run this cycle.

A combination of factors stymied Christie's candidacy: a Republican primary electorate that saw compromise as capitulation; the strongest GOP field in recent memory, which spread donors thin and made it difficult to stand out; scars from the George Washington Bridge scandal; and, of course, the unexpected candidacy of Trump, who seemed to supplant Christie as the candidate who would not be restrained by political correctness and appealed to voters fed up with Washington.

"There's a season for everything in politics, and Chris Christie as a candidate is kind of out of season," said Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist and president of Washington-based Purple Strategies. "Voters want someone fresh and new that they don't feel like is a part of the status quo. And there's just no way for someone who's been a governor, a keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention . . . to shake that off."

After Christie's reelection in 2013 - in which he won 60 percent of the vote in a blue state, including a majority of Hispanics and women, plus 21 percent of African Americans - the governor seemed poised as the candidate the GOP desperately needed to attract a cross-section of voters against a Democrat seen as as formidable as Hillary Clinton.

Even as the governor was considered an early front-runner for the nomination, some conservatives were still suspicious of the Republican who had embraced Obama on the eve of the 2012 presidential election, when Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore. A super PAC backing Rubio used footage of Christie alongside Obama in a devastating attack ad in New Hampshire.

Within months of Christie's reelection, New Jersey Democrats made public emails obtained via subpoena that linked Christie's office to the bizarre lane closures at the bridge in September 2013.

Federal prosecutors say three Christie allies closed the lanes to punish a local Democratic mayor for refusing to endorse the governor's reelection. One pleaded guilty; the other two are set to stand trial in May.

While Christie wasn't accused of wrongdoing, the scandal tarred his image, raising questions about his judgment, and causing some to view his brash style in a less favorable light.

But he forged ahead, announcing his candidacy about two months after a federal grand jury handed down the indictment.

"Americans are not angry; Americans are filled with anxiety," Christie said June 30 at his campaign kickoff in Livingston, N.J., where he grew up.

"Both parties have led us to believe that in America, a country that was built on compromise, that somehow now compromise is a dirty word," he added.

His pitch failed to gain traction with the GOP primary electorate, which has responded to Trump's declaration that the country is "going to hell" and Cruz's hard-line opposition to Washington deal-making.

So Christie recalibrated his message, arguing that he, too, wanted to "burn" Washington down, but that unlike his rivals, he had the experience to rebuild and move the country in a new direction.

When Christie did gain momentum in December, hitting double digits in New Hampshire polls, his opponents attacked him relentlessly there. A super PAC supporting Rubio reminded voters of New Jersey's high taxes and weak economy and accused Christie of advancing a liberal agenda.

"He has just been crucified over the last several weeks on TV, on radio, in the mail, online," said Mike Dennehy, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire. "He's coming to a gunfight with a sword and losing badly."

Christie didn't have the money to fight back. Heading into January, his campaign had just $1 million in the bank, the least of all the remaining candidates. The super PAC supporting his candidacy didn't raise as much as outside groups backing Bush, Rubio, and Cruz, among others.

Of course, Christie had his moments this election. On the campaign trail, he seemed to connect with voters personally with stories about the death of his mother and the parents of a soldier soon to be deployed to Iraq.

On the debate stage, he played up his terrorism-fighting days as U.S. attorney and often belittled arguments between the various senators as Washington gobbledygook, winning applause and sometimes laughter.

At a polling place at Bedford High School on Tuesday, among those who voted for Christie were Jeff and Chris Koellmer, both 69. "He seems to, like his ad says, tell it like it is,' " said Chris, a retired church secretary.

She said Christie "really solidified it for us" during the last debate, and said his habit of turning and speaking into the camera had made an impression: "He looked at us through the television."

For months, Christie had dismissed polls, saying in June in Iowa: "It's not make-or-break until people start voting."

When they voted, they chose someone else.

mhanna@phillynews.com

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@maddiehanna

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