Christie plans a slugfest against Trump – but can that work?

Chris Christie glanced at the two television monitors in my office and saw the biggest obstacle – and, in his mind, his greatest opportunity – to winning the Republican presidential nomination. Both CNN and MSNBC were covering the Trump investigations.

“Everything he does is about him,” the former New Jersey governor said. “He doesn’t care about anyone else, who he hurts or what he says. He’s never going to be anybody’s retribution but his own.”

What’s more, no matter how many times Trump is indicted, he’ll never quit. “He’s like a vampire. He will come back again and again until you drive a stake through his heart.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Christie thinks he has a shot. The other contenders and would-be contenders are avoiding strong criticism of Donald Trump or deflecting questions about him. Christie, a former prosecutor, has a punch-in-the-nose style and has been swinging away at his onetime ally, including at a New Hampshire town hall this week.

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While Christie said he’ll decide on running by mid-May – the family is “almost all there,” he said – his body language tells me he’s running.

But Christie, who dropped out after New Hampshire in his 2016 run, has a towering mountain to climb.

He’s mired at 1% in most polls. He’s been out of national politics for more than six years. And he was a strong supporter and informal adviser to the former president, right up to Election Night 2020. 

“When you say the election has been stolen and you have no evidence to prove that, it’s a disgrace,” he told me.

“There are a group of people whose anger he has stoked,” referring to Trump’s attacks on Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg and warning of “death and destruction” if he brings an indictment. “The media have stoked anger as well because it brings eyeballs to the screen, whether it’s pro-Trump media or anti-Trump media.”

The Trump camp doesn’t seem too worried, with a spokesman telling reporters who asked about the criticism: “Who’s that?”

Still, the former governor has a game plan, which he concedes may or may not work.

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Right now, the press is covering 2024 as a two-person race between Trump and Ron DeSantis. Only one of them will survive, and Christie doesn’t think it will be the Florida governor.

At that point, Republican donors and strategists will look around and say, now what?

Since Christie is the only contender willing to punch it out with Trump, he said, he’ll be able to generate some traction. But if the Trump-Desantis battle rages on until year’s end, Christie said, his window of opportunity may never come – and he might have to consider dropping out.

Of course, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that DeSantis comes out on top, and rips him for calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a territorial dispute. I point out that DeSantis later walked that back and called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal.”

To Christie, this is sheer indecision: “Is he a purveyor of a territorial dispute or a war criminal? Somebody needs to send a wake-up call to Tallahassee.”

One potentially fatal flaw in Christie’s plan is that he not only endorsed Trump in 2016 – which he now calls a mistake – but continued to strongly back him during his presidency and even chaired his opioid commission.

So why would voters believe that Chris Christie is the man to drive Trump from the race when he was such an ardent supporter? I couldn’t get Christie to criticize any aspect of the Trump presidency, with all its chaos and controversy. It wasn’t until November of 2020, from Christie’s vantage point, that Trump crossed an unacceptable line.

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Christie, who famously embarrassed Marco Rubio in one 2016 faceoff, has reason to believe that Trump knows of his debating chops. He played Hillary Clinton in debate prep and Joe Biden four years later. 

Not that his advice was always taken. In one 2020 session, Trump said he had handled the burgeoning pandemic perfectly. Christie said people didn’t perceive it that way in the wake of 600,000 American deaths, offering a softer response. Trump thanked him – and in the next round said he had handled COVID perfectly. 

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Christie knows how draining it is to run for president. As a blue-state governor, he may have been a better fit for the Republican Party of 2012, when he declined to run, than today’s Trumpified party. But he takes solace from something his wife told him:

If he accomplishes nothing more than knocking Trump out, he will have performed a great public service. 

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