MANCHESTER, N.H. - Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wasted no time going after Donald Trump while launching his presidential campaign on Tuesday, calling the former president and current Republican primary front-runner a "lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog" and arguing that he's the only one who can stop him.
A onetime federal prosecutor, Christie was among the crowded field of 2016 Republican presidential candidates steamrolled by Trump. Now that Trump is running for the White House a third time, this year's crop of rivals have no choice but to criticize him relentlessly, or risk political history repeating itself, Christie says.
Kicking off his campaign with a town hall at Saint Anselm College, Christie suggested that other top Republicans have been afraid to challenge Trump or even mention his name much while campaigning — but made it clear he had no such qualms.
"A lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog is not a leader," Christie said, adding, "The person I am talking about, who is obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault, who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong — but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right — is Donald Trump."
Christie enters a growing primary field that already includes Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Former Vice President Mike Pence will be formally launching his own campaign in Iowa on Wednesday.
Mere weeks after dropping out of the 2016 race, Christie became the first sitting governor and former rival to endorse Trump. He went on to become a close off-and-on adviser before finally breaking with Trump over his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election.
During his time as governor, Christie established a reputation as a fighter with a knack for creating viral moments of confrontation. But he faces an uphill battle to the nomination in a party that remains closely aligned with the former president, despite Trump’s reelection loss in 2020 and Republicans’ poorer-than-expected showing in the 2022 midterm elections.
Anti-Trump Republicans are particularly eager to see Christie spar with Trump on a debate stage. But that happen only if Trump agrees to participate in primary debates and Christie meets the stringent fundraising criteria set by the Republican National Committee for participation.
JP Marzullo, a former state representative and former vice chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, previously backed Trump but is now supporting Christie.
"I think he’ll actually unite some of the voters, and he’ll get to independents," Marzullo said of the former governor, adding, "I think it’s time for a change."
Christie began criticizing Trump by name mere moments into his half-hour speech Tuesday, saying the former president had "made us smaller by dividing us even further and pitting us one against the other."
He also said President Joe Biden "is doing the same thing, just on the other side." Christie noted that he'd known Biden for decades and that he was a nice guy, but said that the president is "out of his depth" because "he’s not the guy he used to be," referencing the 80-year-old Biden's advanced age.
But Christie's chief target was Trump.
"There’s a big argument in our country right now about whether character matters, and we have leaders who have shown us over and over again that not only are they devoid of character, they don’t care." Christie said. "We can’t dismiss the question of character anymore, everybody. If we do, we get what we deserve, and we will have to own it."
Christie advisers are planning a nontraditional, nationally focused campaign based on earned media attention, instead of focusing on specific states. Their candidate said staying aggressive against Trump was key and scoffed Tuesday at what he said were Trump's failed promises, including a pledge to wall off the entire southern U.S. border and have Mexico pay for it.
"The reason I’m going after Trump is twofold," Christie said. "One, he deserves it. And two, it’s the way to win."
Christie will test the appetite among Republican voters for someone who has expressed support for many of Trump's policies but has criticized the former president's conduct. The former governor has urged the party to move on or risk future losses.
Other Republicans with similar views, including former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, have opted against their own campaigns, expressing concerns that having more candidates in the race will only benefit Trump.
Christie was at one point seen as one of the Republican Party’s brightest political stars as the popular Republican governor of a Democratic state. But despite persistent urging from top donors and party officials, he declined to run for president in 2012. By the time he announced in 2016, his reputation had been tarnished by the "Bridgegate" scandal in which aides were accused of wreaking traffic havoc in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in an apparent effort to punish the city’s mayor for failing to endorse his reelection bid.
The former governor has known Trump for nearly 20 years but their relationship has been complicated. Christie was on the shortlist to serve as Trump’s vice president, oversaw Trump’s early White House transition efforts, said he was offered — and turned down — multiple Cabinet positions, and helped Trump prepare for each of his general election debates in 2016 and 2020.
But Christie also clashed with Trump at times and has described the former president’s refusal to accept his 2020 election loss to Biden as a breaking point.
Christie opting to start his 2024 bid at a New Hampshire town hall recalled his first run at the White House, when he focused on the state, holding dozens of New Hampshire town hall events only to finish sixth in its primary. He dropped out of that race shortly afterward.
After his speech Tuesday, Christie took extended questions from the audience — a common occurrence in early voting states that DeSantis was hesitant to do when launching his campaign. Christie also talked openly about his underwhelming 2016 performance, despite concentrating so heavily on New Hampshire.
"I lost," Christie laughed. "You people did that to me in 2016."
Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press Writer Will Weissert contributed to this story from Washington.