By Joseph Ax and Eric Beech
(Reuters) – Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday launched his 2024 presidential campaign with a withering attack on the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, calling him a “self-serving mirror hog” and faulting other rivals for avoiding direct confrontation.
Christie, 60, was an adviser to Trump’s successful 2016 White House campaign but has since become a vocal critic over the former president’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
A former federal prosecutor, Christie presented himself as the lone Republican contender willing to go toe-to-toe with the bellicose Trump.
“A lonely, self-consumed, self-serving mirror hog is not a leader,” he said.
At one point, he delivered a mocking impression of Trump claiming he would build a southern border wall at Mexico’s expense and said Trump, more than Biden, was to blame for the country’s failed immigration policy.
In a post on his social media site, Trump made a reference to Christie’s weight and called him a “failed governor.”
Christie has not fared well in public opinion polling thus far. He netted just 1% support from potential Republican primary voters in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in May, compared with Trump’s 49% support and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ 19% support.
Other Republicans seeking the party’s nomination to challenge President Joe Biden include former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Tim Scott. Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, is set to enter the race on Wednesday.
Taking the stage to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Christie accused both Trump and Biden of “making us smaller” by dividing Americans. He called Biden a “nice guy” but said he was out of his depth, in a reference to the 80-year-old’s age.
Christie, who has always enjoyed the town hall format, answered questions for nearly two hours after his initial remarks on everything from his anti-abortion stance to his views on China.
When an attendee asked him about the recent debt ceiling agreement struck by Biden and congressional Republicans, Christie praised both sides for averting catastrophe.
“When did compromise become such a dirty word?” he said.
Christie ran for president in 2016 but ended his bid after a disappointing finish in the New Hampshire primary and became the first major figure in the party to back Trump.
He has since disavowed Trump, a shift that may attract Republicans ready to move past Trump. But it remains unclear whether any Republican can prevail in a crowded field without the support of Trump’s still-loyal base.
As an underdog, Christie could end up playing the role of spoiler, as he did in 2016, when his dissection of U.S. Senator Marco Rubio at a debate days before Christie dropped out of the race blunted Rubio’s momentum.
Christie dismissed that notion that he was only running to stop Trump, rather than win.
“How are those two things mutually exclusive?” he asked to laughter. “The guy’s ahead in the polls. Who am I supposed to be worried about, Nikki Haley?”
As a Republican governor in Democratic-leaning New Jersey from 2009 to 2017, Christie was once seen as a rising political star whose confrontational approach earned him plaudits from admirers and accusations of bullying from detractors.
But his tenure was tarnished by the “Bridgegate” scandal, in which two allies shut down lanes at the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York City to punish a local mayor for failing to endorse Christie’s re-election.
Christie has said he was unaware of the plot, but witnesses at a criminal trial for the two allies testified that the governor knew about the lane closures. On Tuesday, he said he took responsibility for putting his trust in the wrong people, calling it his biggest mistake.
Despite his early support for Trump, Christie was passed over for vice president and for attorney general, and was fired as the head of Trump’s transition team just three days after the 2016 election.