Can Christie turn weaknesses into New Hampshire strengths?

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Chris Christie's opening week as a presidential candidate doubled as the first test of his campaign's blueprint for success: Camp out in New Hampshire, the first state in the nation to hold a primary election, and win over Republican primary voters one town hall at a time with his characteristic blunt talk and megawatt charisma.

And at least for the opening stretch of his campaign, Christie seems to be able to avoid or neutralize those issues that have hurt him nationally, like the scandal in which his aidesordered the closure of certain lanes of the George Washington Bridge as an apparent act of political retribution, or his work with President Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

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Though national and state polls show Christie lagging behind his GOP opponents, Republicans who watched the New Jersey governor up close over five days and more than a dozen campaign events across the state say they were reminded of the star power that helped propel Christie to national prominence after his first gubernatorial win six years ago.

"He's got the backbone," said Jeff Musheno, a retired cop from the Bronx who came out to see Christie at Wednesday house party in Bristol, New Hampshire. "I'm sick of pretty boys. I want some honesty."

"People have finally decided they want some sincerity and some honesty. Even if it's bad news. I'd rather hear it than some speech written by a professional writer, and then you don't know what you get in the end," he added.


While national cable pundits continue to dissect the George Washington Bridge scandal that crumpled Christie's once-formidable poll numbers, not a single Republican voter asked Christie about the scandal, nicknamed "Bridgegate," during his opening tour of the state.

It wasn't for lack of opportunity. Over five days of hour-long question-and-answer sessions, shaking hundreds of hands and posing for an endless stream of selfies with supporters, there was a complete absence of questions about the scnadal -- except for when reporters brought it up.

Christie addressed the subject on Wednesday in Maine, where he took a quick detour from his Granite State foray to pick up the endorsement of the state's outspoken Republican governor, Paul LePage.

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"Controversies come and go," Christie told a bank of reporters and television cameras during the event.

Later that day, at a house party in Bristol, retiree Joanne Voebel said Christie fulfilled her most important criteria of "integrity and honesty."

"They skunked him," Voebel, originally a New Yorker, said of the media's coverage of Bridgegate.

Christie would seem to agree with her on that. In an interview that aired on "Fox News Sunday," the governor said the media owed him an apology after "convicting me...of heinous acts."

"Now that there's no truth to what they said, they say, 'oh well he didn't do anything but he created an atmosphere.' That's what the liberal media does rather than saying I'm sorry, which is what they should say."

After a Thursday roundtable in Portsmouth, host Renee Plummer, a GOP activist, said voters have better things to talk about than Bridgegate.

"I've got ISIS, I'm worried about my military, my veterans," she said. "There are so many important things to focus on."

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Tom Rath, a longtime Republican power broker in the state who supported Mitt Romney in 2012, was more concise.

"No one cares about the bridge," Rath said in an interview with CBS News.

Former New Hampshire congressman Charlie Bass, a Republican, said the controversy is next-to-irrelevant in a GOP primary.

"We're talking about the primary here, not the general election," Bass said. "It might haunt him in the general...but in a Republican primary, I don't understand where the beef is here. The issue is concluded."

Polls? What polls?

Voters who meet Christie at the town halls and roundtables might like what they see, but the fact remains that he underwhelms in the polls.

In the most recent Suffolk University poll of likely Republican primary voters, Christie came in sixth place, with just five percent of voters calling him their first choice to be president. Ahead in the line: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, business mogul Donald Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and neurosurgeon and conservative activist Ben Carson.

But longtime Granite state political hands say it's not an issue.

Bass told CBS News that the early poll results are "immaterial." Bush, for example, is the leader in the Suffolk poll, even though he was the first choice of just 14 percent of voters.

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"All of these people are basically race cars at the starting line," Bass said. "They all have power and potential, but none of them have broken out, and they aren't going to for months. It doesn't matter if you're at 1 percent or 20 percent right now."

Rath said in-person reactions matter far more at this stage than any poll.

"First of all, no poll in New Hampshire before Halloween means much, because everyone knows and luxuriates about all of the time they have on their hands to change their minds," he said.

Bill Greiner, a top Christie supporter in the state, agreed, saying, "polls don't matter" in New Hampshire right now.

"I don't think he worries about what the polls are," he said of Christie. "People like him. He can't just come to one or three towns, and the governor knows that. The more he is visible and out and accessible -- when the polls matter they will reflect that."

Turning weakness into strength

Christie is trying to turn another controversy into a benefit: His public praise for President Obama's handling of Superstorm Sandy. Christie toured the storm damage in New Jersey with the president just days before the 2012 election, even Mr. Obama in full view of TV cameras. Some Republicans complained that the moment helped Mr. Obama clinch his re-election victory against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But Christie's not sorry.

"I will never apologize for what I did in the aftermath of Sandy," Christie told a roundtable crowd of business leaders in Portsmouth on Wednesday.

He spent the week highlighting his ability to thrive as a Republican governor in a blue state, eliciting approval and applause for his self-proclaimed ability to compromise.

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"That hug with Obama, that's what I want to hear," said Plummer. "He was taking care of his residents. That's how he'll be if he wins - he'll take care of the country."

Though Christie's relationship with the Democratic legislature in New Jersey has deteriorated over the last year, Greiner said Christie's willingness to work with the other party would still resonate in New Hampshire, where independents make up a huge slice of the primary vote.

"The hard partisans on both sides will never appeal to the independents," he told CBS News. "People expect politicians to work across party lines in our state. The governor doesn't run from that. It is who he is."