To say that Republican Chris Christie held a town hall in New Hampshire is not news, in and of itself. But Sunday night's town hall in Dover was different.
While the New Jersey governor has made town hall-style events the focus of his presidential campaign, this event at Newick's Restaurant also featured Maine Governor Paul LePage, Christie’s most prominent – and outspoken – supporter.
Christie opened the event with a story about a trip he made to Maine for LePage's reelection effort.
“We went to visit to a diner and we did a press availability – I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but it was a little bit of a raucous press availability with me and LePage," Christie said, to laughter and applause. "We were taking turns [over] who was giving the press a harder time.”
Christie, of course, has made his reputation for blunt talk the centerpiece of his presidential bid – his events are billed as “Telling It Like It Is” town halls. LePage, meanwhile, is well known in Maine for being candid and combative toward political opponents, the press and government agencies – he once called the IRS “the new Gestapo,” comments he later partially walked back.
But there wasn’t much in the way of verbal fireworks at this nearly two hour event; the audience applauded loudly and none of the questioners challenged either governor's policies or record. Perhaps the bluntest talk came when the two governors spoke about energy policy. Christie said it was “stupid” that the US hasn’t moved forward with the Keystone XL pipeline project and criticized the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as "a Northeastern disaster. As governor I pulled out of it, and I haven’t regretted it for a minute.”
LePage said that as wind and solar moved forward, US energy policy should have room for other alternatives as well. “I will argue that hydro is a clean energy," he said. "I will argue that nuclear is a clean energy. I will argue that geothermal is a clean energy.”
Many of their answers came with humor, such as when Christie used rock climbing walls on college campuses as a symbol of the growing cost of higher education. “I asked at UNH," he said. "Do you have rock climbing walls? They said yes. I said, you have rocks! Why aren’t you going outside and climbing the real rocks?”
Walls of a different kind came up during a discussion of immigration. Christie called for better fencing along parts of the southern border, but said what he supported was different from Donald Trump’s proposal - "not a 1,900 mile long wall, ok? It’s not going to happen," Christie said. "I don’t care how many times it gets repeated, it’s not going to happen, and let me remind you of one other thing. I’ve met President Peña Nieto of Mexico a couple of times, and I don’t care who asks him, he’s not paying for it.”
Christie’s reference to Trump, albeit not by name, was a reminder that there are many Republicans trying to position themselves as the truth-teller of the presidential field. Christie said endorsements from LePage and another governor with a similar style, Larry Hogan of Maryland, bolster his claim to that title.
But critics say there’s more to these governors than candor. LePage won reelection in 2014, but his second term, if anything, has been more contentious than his first. Among other issues, he’s facing a lawsuit from the state’s Democratic House Speaker over an incident in which the governor reportedly threatened to withhold public funding from a charter school if it hired the speaker.
Christie continues to face questions over his aides’ alleged involvement in the George Washington Bridge lane closures scandal, though the governor himself hasn’t been implicated and he’s said there’s been no proof of any wrongdoing thus far.
Supporters say instances like these are merely what happens when governors challenge the status quo. David Martin of Dover says Christie should keep that in mind as he campaigns. “It’s grassroots; you’ve got to visit with the people," Martin said. "The guy is really honest and I think that’s going to resonate with voters.”
That’s essentially how Christie describes his campaign strategy – more town hall events, more frank exchanges with voters, and more events with Paul LePage, here in New Hampshire - and maybe beyond, too. “Lepage and I," he said, "are going to bring this act to Washington. We're going to bring this act to Washington and I know they're not prepared. But that's good, they shouldn't be.”