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Christie ramps up Haley criticism as he rejects calls to exit GOP primary

Chris Christie has a message for those calling for him to exit the Republican presidential primary to help consolidate the field against front-runner Donald Trump: “I’m not going anywhere.”

“If they were up here in New Hampshire and saw the crowds we were getting, the reaction we were getting, they wouldn’t honestly be able to say any of that,” the former New Jersey governor told CNN in an interview Friday.

Christie, who is counting on a strong performance in the first-in-the-nation primary on January 23 to buoy his campaign, has positioned himself as a “truth teller” in the race, drawing a contrast with Trump and often criticizing his onetime ally’s conduct.

But he has struggled to register in the national polls and, a little over a month before voting begins in the GOP primary, several top party financiers looking to boost a Trump alternative are throwing their support behind former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

Still, Christie remains undaunted.

“I haven’t had one donor, not one of my significant donors or any donor at all, call me and say that we should get out of this race. I haven’t had one supporter call me and tell me to get out of this race,” he said.

Though Christie defended Haley against onstage jabs by rival Vivek Ramaswamy at the fourth GOP primary debate Wednesday, he insisted the moment was purely personal, telling CNN, “I’ve been friends with her for 13 years, and Vivek basically compared her intellect to his 3-year-old son. It pissed me off, and I reacted to it.”

“You’re gonna see over the next seven weeks here, there’s no alliance between me and Nikki Haley,” he said.

That ongoing competition is already apparent. The day after the debate, Christie criticized Haley in Henniker, New Hampshire, for saying at an evangelical forum in Iowa last month that she would sign a six-week abortion ban in South Carolina if she were still governor.

“Chris Sununu taught me this a long time ago about New Hampshire,” he said, referring to the state’s popular Republican governor. “You can’t say one thing in Iowa and another thing in New Hampshire and expect that they’re not going to notice. All right, so I’m very clear about this, and Nikki has not been.”

(Sununu, for his part, is yet to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary but has made clear his choice is between Christie, Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.)

At a town hall Friday in Hooksett, New Hampshire, Christie faulted Haley for not being more vocal against the former president, saying his rival “doesn’t want any of the people who are supporting Trump right now to be angry with her.”

“I’m the only person trying to beat Trump. All the rest of them are trying for something else. I’m not running for first loser. And DeSantis and Haley are running for first loser,” he said.

An appeal to independents

In the final weeks before New Hampshire’s primary, Christie is looking to win over independent voters and those who haven’t participated in the Republican primary before, including college students.

“You could be a big factor in determining who wins this primary,” he told students Thursday at New England College in Henniker, his third school stop on a two-day college tour focused on registering young people to vote in New Hampshire.

His rivals, he said, “think they have a chance to get your vote. They probably don’t, given the way they talk, but I know that I do.”

Trump, however, remains a dominant front-runner in New Hampshire. A CNN/University of New Hampshire poll last month showed Christie in third place, with 14% among likely Republican primary voters in the Granite State, behind Trump at 42% and Haley at 20%.

UNH pollster Andrew Smith said there was still time for candidates to gain traction among New Hampshire voters who are just tuning into the race and have not made up their minds.

“What we’ve seen historically in the New Hampshire primary is that upwards of 25% to a third make up their mind on Election Day and upwards of 50% are still undecided the last weekend of the election, so a lot can happen,” he said. “After New Year’s is when you’re going to see things really heat up, and voters start to pay attention.”

Dawn Lavallee, a New Hampshire voter who usually votes in the Democratic primary, told CNN she’s looking to vote for a Republican candidate who she thinks is best poised to beat Trump.

Though she likes Christie’s “honesty,” she is also considering Haley. “If I had to vote right now, probably Nikki Haley. Just because I think she has a better chance of doing better against [Trump] in the state,” she said.

Christie brushed off concerns that he and Haley are competing for some of the same voters, telling CNN, “If Nikki were to get out of this race tomorrow and tell all her voters to endorse me, do you think that they would actually all come and vote for me? Of course not.”

“Nikki Haley and I will coexist in this race as long as we can,” he said.

Looking beyond New Hampshire

As Christie looks ahead to January, he often points back, drawing parallels to John McCain’s first-place finish in the 2008 New Hampshire Republican primary after going all-in on the Granite State.

“This was the place that was gonna anoint President Mitt Romney in 2008 or President Rudy Giuliani,” he said. “John McCain was broke, driving around the state with two staffers and a Suburban, and he was at the bottom of the polls. And he won. So I’ll take my chances.”

Christie stands by his vow to stay in the race until the Republican National Convention next summer, and a recent campaign memo to donors laid out a potential plan to do so, relying on winning over independent voters and maintaining a low campaign cash burn rate.

After New Hampshire, Christie said his next target will be Michigan, which also has an open primary where independent voters can cast their ballots in the GOP contest.

He said he’s not giving up on South Carolina, where he made a second campaign trip in late October. But he acknowledged that Haley might have a home-field advantage in the state Trump won twice by double digits.

“For goodness sake, Gov. Haley was a two-term governor there. She should win that state,” he said.

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