Chris Christie just can’t catch a break.
In the middle of what had been shaping up to be among the best weeks of his campaign for president, the Republican governor of New Jersey was kicked to the “kiddie table” when Fox Business Network said he didn’t have the poll numbers needed to qualify for Tuesday’s prime-time debate.
The relegation to the undercard is the latest blow for Christie, who has struggled to emerge in a packed field led by political newcomers — most notably billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, who has effectively stolen Christie’s tell-it-like-it-is calling card.
“Did I want to throw something at the television? Yes,” said Bobbie Kilberg, one of Christie’s most loyal financial backers. But Kilberg was among the many Christie supporters who — familiar with political setbacks — said the decision would only increase their resolve and spur them to work harder to bring in the cash needed to keep Christie’s campaign going.
The demotion came as Christie, whose very early front-runner status was crushed by a scandal involving aides creating traffic jams on a bridge into Manhattan, appeared on the cusp of a breakthrough thanks to a video published by The Huffington Post that shows him talking about the pain of losing a friend to drug addiction.
While Christie has told the story dozens of times at town hall events, the video went viral and had been viewed more than 7.6 million times as of Sunday evening.
The response to the video underscores Christie’s raw political talent: he undoubtedly has the ability to connect with an audience in ways many of his rivals cannot.
After weeks of focus on New Hampshire, his standing in some preference polls there has improved recently. Christie has also seen substantial gains in his favorability ratings, both nationally as well as in Iowa, where his team is hoping a stronger-than-expected showing will position him to win New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, Christie has tried to play down the impact of getting booted from the main stage of the fourth GOP primary debate.
Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Christie tried to put a positive spin on the downgrade, saying, “I’ll be on a stage where I’m going to get a lot more time to talk.”
And he said the true winnowing of the field will take place later, in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“We’re Not Whiners, Or Moaners, Or Complainers In The Christie Campaign,” read the subject line of one email blast from his campaign.
Speaking Friday in New Hampshire, where he filed to appear on the state’s primary ballot, Christie said what matters is his message.
“I’ve never had difficulty making an impression. I’ll make an impression on Tuesday night, too, just like I have in the first three debates,” he said.
“We are fine,” echoed Christie senior adviser Mike DuHaime in an email. “We don’t make the rules, just play by them. Our supporters and donors know that Gov. Christie has overcome a lot more than being switched to a different stage.”
Some Christie supporters have gone further and tried to put a positive spin on his debate downgrade, arguing that appearing on the less crowded stage will give the governor more opportunity to make his case to viewers.
“He’ll get a lot more time. He’ll get a lot more attention,” said Jim McConaha, a Republican from Concord, New Hampshire, who came to watch Christie file his paperwork. “It’s better than standing at the end of the row, leaning on the podium waiting for your opportunity to say something.”
Kilberg said the downgrade was sparking new commitments from previously on-the-fence donors angry at Christie’s treatment.
“People are calling me and saying, ‘this is ridiculous,'” she said. “People are even more energized.”
Yet the decision still has the potential to set back Christie. Many believe he missed his chance to be president four years ago when he declined to run, saying he wasn’t ready for the White House. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry saw his fundraising essentially disappear after he was relegated to an undercard debate earlier in the year. He left the race soon after.
Iowa-based Jamie Johnson, who served as senior director to the Perry campaign and is not affiliated with any candidate now, said Christie still has a chance to build on the momentum that Johnson says he’s seeing in the state.
“If there was ever a candidate who was a fighter and could find a way to bounce back after being demoted to the secondary debate forum,” he said, “it’s Chris Christie.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.