By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) -Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday launched his 2024 presidential campaign by presenting himself as the only candidate in the growing Republican field willing to go toe-to-toe with the “self-serving” front-runner, Donald Trump.
Christie was an adviser to Trump’s successful 2016 White House campaign but has since become a vocal critic over the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
A former federal prosecutor, Christie kicked off his White House bid at a town hall-style event at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He wasted little time attacking Trump directly, accusing him of shirking responsibility for mistakes while caring only about himself.
“A lonely, self-consumed, self-serving, mirror hog is not a leader,” he said.
At another point, he adopted a mocking impression of Trump claiming he would build a southern border wall at Mexico’s expense and said Trump, more than Biden, was to blame for the country’s failed immigration policy.
In a post on his social media site, Trump called Christie a “failed governor” and said his rival’s speech “rambled all over the place.”
Christie, 60, has not fared well in public opinion polling thus far. He netted just 1% support from potential Republican primary voters in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May, compared to Trump’s 49% support and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ 19% support.
Other Republicans seeking the party’s nomination to challenge President Joe Biden include former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Tim Scott. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, is set to enter the race on Wednesday.
Taking the stage to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Christie sought to present himself as a sensible alternative to Trump, saying the former president “made us smaller” by dividing Americans and criticizing Biden for doing the same thing “on the other side.”
When an attendee asked him what he thought of the recent debt ceiling agreement struck by Biden and congressional Republicans, Christie said he was not sure if it was the best possible deal but praised both sides for averting catastrophe.
“Governing is about compromising,” he said. “When did compromise become such a dirty word?”
Christie ran for president in 2016 but ended his bid after a disappointing finish in the New Hampshire primary and became the first major figure in the party to back Trump.
He since has urged Republicans to disavow Trump’s assertions about the 2020 election and told reporters he would not vote for Trump in 2024, even if Trump won the nomination.
That strategy may entice Republican voters who are ready to move past Trump, but it remains unclear whether any Republican can prevail without the support of Trump’s still-loyal base.
As an underdog, Christie could end up playing the role of spoiler, a position he found himself occupying in 2016, when his dissection of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio at a debate days before Christie dropped out of the race blunted Rubio’s momentum.
Christie first emerged as a national figure on the strength of his two terms from 2009 to 2017 as governor of Democratic-leaning New Jersey, where his confrontational approach to politics earned him plaudits from admirers and accusations of bullying from detractors.
His tenure was tarnished by the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, in which two allies deliberately shut down lanes at the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York City to punish a local mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election.
Christie has said he was unaware of the plot at the time, but witnesses at a criminal trial for the two allies testified that the governor knew about the lane closures.
Despite his early support for Trump, Christie was passed over for vice president and for attorney general, and was fired as the head of Trump’s transition team just three days after the 2016 election.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Alistair Bell and Stephen Coates)
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