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Christie’s exit scrambles race, gives hope to anti-Trump forces in N.H.

WINDHAM, N.H. — Chris Christie’s exit Wednesday night upended a presidential race that has been stagnant for months — creating a glimmer of hope for Republicans opposed to Donald Trump that they could slow his seemingly inevitable march to the nomination here in New Hampshire.

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley now has an opportunity to win the Granite State’s more independent voters looking for an alternative to Trump who otherwise might have voted for Christie. His supporters often named Haley as their second choice — and many voters say they are undecided in a state where there have been late swings in the primary historically.

Jim Merrill, a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist, said Christie’s withdrawal has turned the contest here into a “a two-person race” ahead of the Jan. 23 primary.

“After a year of everyone scrapping amongst themselves, for the next 13 days here, it’s all about Haley versus Trump,” Merrill said.

The shake-up in the race comes just days before the first votes of the 2024 presidential campaign are cast in Iowa. Christie was a non-factor there, having built his entire political strategy around a strong performance in New Hampshire.

His early retreat widens the path for Haley, who in recent days has seen growing support in public polls among New Hampshire voters. In a CNN poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire that was released this week, Trump had the support of 39 percent of the state’s GOP primary voters, and Haley had the backing of 32 percent. Christie was in a distant third position with 12 percent. But other polls have shown Trump with a wider edge over his rivals.

A win here later this month would inject her campaign with real momentum heading into the late-February primary in South Carolina, her home state, and possibly beyond.

Trump’s campaign downplayed the possibility that Christie’s departure from the race would lead to a Haley victory in New Hampshire. Trump pollster John McLaughlin wrote in an internal memo on Wednesday night that the Trump campaign’s internal polling showed that Christie had not been “much of a factor.”

“Among New Hampshire Republican primary voters, Chris Christie is radioactive,” McLaughlin wrote in an internal memo to Trump advisers Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles. “If his withdrawal was meant to help Nikki Haley, it will further polarize the primary to be a battle between the Trump conservatives and Haley’s establishment base.”

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who has endorsed Haley and intends to campaign intensively for her in the days ahead, said in a statement that defeating Trump “requires a consolidated field and Nikki Haley has the momentum to do so.”

But, at least for now, Christie did not throw his support behind Haley and did not seem to be encouraging his supporters to back her. At the campaign event where he announced his departure from the race, several supporters said they were worried that Trump would now sail unchallenged to the nomination without someone like Christie as a foil.

“I can tell you, I’m not going with Nikki Haley; I don’t know where I’m going to go,” said Wayne MacDonald, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “As Gov. Christie has said, she has pandered to Donald Trump. … Saying she would vote for him if he’s a convicted felon; saying she would pardon him; saying he was the right president at the right time. All of that is — she’s cozying up to the Trump people — trying to make the most of that vote.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told CNN’s Anderson Cooper after his debate with Haley in Iowa on Wednesday that he was surprised Christie didn’t stay in the presidential race through New Hampshire, where the former New Jersey governor had focused all his efforts. Asked about Christie’s hot-mic comments before his Wednesday announcement that DeSantis had been “petrified” that he would drop out during a call between the two candidates, DeSantis said he reached out and felt Christie was “being treated poorly.”

“I said, you have every right to do this,” DeSantis said. He suggested that Haley’s failure to give a straight answer to questions like whether she would agree to serve as Trump’s vice president if asked had contributed to Christie’s earlier determination to stay in the race.

During a town hall with Fox News that aired as the GOP debate he skipped was playing out, Trump said he was confident that he was leading by a “tremendous amount” in New Hampshire and that he wasn’t “exactly worried” about how Christie’s exit would affect the race. Noting his previous victories in New Hampshire, he said he understood the state “very well.”

“I love the people; they love me,” Trump said.

Mark Harris, lead strategist for SFA Fund Inc., the super PAC aligned with Haley’s campaign, said he believes the “overwhelming majority” of Christie’s voters will come to Haley but said she still needs to go out and make the case to them.

“It’s a very positive development for us, and we got to see what happens on Monday, but I feel very encouraged by it,” Harris said. “I’ve always believed we had our path to win even with him in the race, but certainly him out gives us a wider path to get there.”

Harris wouldn’t say whether Christie donors have started to make contact, but he said, “My phone’s been busy.”

Speaking in deep, somber tones in a small chapel in Windham to a group of about 150 supporters, Christie’s speech amounted to a sharp condemnation of his fellow candidates, whom he faulted for enabling Trump’s rise by failing to confront him and refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of the legal jeopardy that he is facing this year after being indicted in four separate cases.

There was no suggestion in Christie’s remarks that he would endorse any of his former GOP rivals in the near term, and he said they had showed cowardice for not calling out Trump’s conduct.

Just before Christie’s departure, he disparaged Haley on a live microphone minutes before he announced that he was suspending his campaign. He was overheard telling a confidant that Haley was “going to get smoked” and “she’s not up to this.”

In that private conversation, broadcast online in a live stream of his event, he added before the feed was abruptly cut off that DeSantis had been “petrified” during a phone call — presumably referring to the fact that his departure would give Haley an advantage over the Florida governor in primary contests ahead. (Trump wrote on Truth Social that Christie’s observation about Haley was a “very truthful statement.”) Christie’s advisers had no comment on the remarks.

Amid the heavy pressure campaign from Sununu and others for him to drop out, Christie’s advisers said that he had been weighing the decision for weeks and ultimately came to his own conclusion after failing to see how he would clinch enough delegates to win the nomination.

“I’ve always said that if there came a point in time in this race where I couldn’t see a path to accomplishing that goal that I would get out,” Christie said. “It’s clear to me tonight that there isn’t a path for me to win the nomination, which is why I’m suspending my campaign.”

He said he knew that he was “disappointing some people by doing this, people who believe in our message and believe in what we’ve been doing.”

“I also know, though, it’s the right thing for me to do because I want to promise you this: I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again.”

“I’ve done everything I can, and it’s not about me,” Christie added. “The other candidates — some of them — have made it about them.”

In his final speech, he delivered a series of cutting attacks on the former president, condemning what he called the “hate and the division and the selfishness” of the Republican Party under Trump’s leadership. He noted his own regret for endorsing Trump after dropping out of the 2016 presidential campaign. Ultimately, Christie broke with Trump over his lies about his 2020 election loss and became one of his sharpest critics.

On Wednesday night, Christie asked his audience to imagine what would have happened if Trump was behind the desk in the Oval Office during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: “The first thing he would have done was run to the bunker to protect himself,” he said, arguing that Trump would have put himself before the interests of the country.

“Anyone who is unwilling to say that he is unfit to be president of the United States is unfit themselves to be President of the United States,” Christie said.

Haley was notably cool to Christie in her statement about his departure from the race, congratulating him on a “hard-fought” race before quickly moving on to her criticism of Trump.

Haley’s campaign team argued on Wednesday night that a lot of potential Christie backers were drifting her way because they “want a winner” and see her as the most electable candidate against Joe Biden in the general election.

“She’s within striking distance from Trump. So we’re gonna build off the momentum in Iowa as we go into New Hampshire,” Haley spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said Wednesday night. “She gains the most from (Christie) dropping out. That’s what polling shows. … I think it’s a shot in the arm for her in New Hampshire.”

Christie promised his supporters that he intended to play a prominent role in the months ahead: “Even though I am suspending this campaign, I am not going away, and my voice is not going away.

Itkowitz reported from Washington. Hannah Knowles, Meryl Kornfield and Dylan Wells in Des Moines contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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