LIVINGSTON, N. J.—New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made his long-anticipated plunge into the 2016 Republican presidential race, and immediately began testing whether his approach as a tough, straight-talking leader can win over centrist primary voters in a crowded field.
In a speech at Livingston High School, Mr. Christie became the 14th major Republican to enter the race. He joins five other sitting or former governors, with two others waiting in the wings.
Mr. Christie’s campaign will test whether his image as an unvarnished speaker, which twice won him election as governor, will play as well in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and beyond.
That style was on display during his Tuesday campaign launch, where Mr. Christie spoke without a teleprompter or notes before hundreds of supporters gathered in the gymnasium of his alma mater.
The 52-year-old former U.S. attorney was set to begin his formal campaign with a five-day swing through New Hampshire, a state that figures to be crucial to his bid. Mr. Christie’s supporters contend his prowess in speaking off the cuff in town-hall settings will attract voters in that first-in-the-nation primary state, where his style and regional appeal appear to be greater than in the first-caucus state of Iowa.
“As a candidate for president, I want to promise you…a campaign without spin or without pandering or focus-group-tested answers,” Mr. Christie told his audience Tuesday, which included his wife, father and four children. “When I’m asked a question, I’m going to give the answer to the question that’s asked, not the answer that my political consultants told me to give backstage.”
Mr. Christie launched his campaign at a relative low point in his popularity, in New Jersey and among Republicans nationwide. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of likely GOP primary voters found that he ranked ninth as their top choice for president, down from seventh in April.
Soon after he took office in 2010, Republicans began eyeing him for a higher post, drawn to his telegenic personality and impressed with his underdog victory in a Democratic state. Later, his legislative record and successful campaigning for other GOP governors burnished his stature within the party.
Mr. Christie rejected pleas to run for president in 2012, and since then his reputation suffered from a scandal involving lane closures that resulted in nearly five days of gridlock at the George Washington Bridge, which links New Jersey and New York. The 2013 incident allegedly was political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., the site of the jam, for not endorsing Mr. Christie’s re-election.
A former aide to the governor and a former Christie ally at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, have been indicted.
Mr. Christie also has been criticized for New Jersey’s financial troubles.
One of his signature accomplishments—a bipartisan overhaul of the pension program for state workers—is in jeopardy after he declined to fully fund the state’s pension contribution amid a budget crunch, leading to a fight with unions and their Democratic allies.
“Two years ago he was one of the hottest things in the country,” said Ed Rollins, a former campaign manager for President Ronald Reagan. “He has definitely lost his opportunity.”
Mr. Christie has sought to strengthen his position this year by giving a series of relatively detailed policy addresses.
On Tuesday, he called for simplifying the tax code, reducing business regulation and scaling back entitlement programs. He promised “to restore America to its rightful place in the world.”
Mr. Christie’s personality—which rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz praised Tuesday as “bold” and “brash”—could give him a needed lift in the debates if he makes the cut, said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who isn’t affiliated with the governor’s campaign. The first two debates will be limited to the top-10 candidates in an average of national polls.
“People gravitate to people who offer a breath of fresh air in contrast to the blow-dried, carefully constructed answers that voters have come to dislike,” Mr. Madden said. “That straight-talking, no nonsense appeal will be important.”
Several hundred protesters gathered outside Livingston High School to criticize Mr. Christie’s handling of Hurricane Sandy and public school issues. About 1,000 supporters cheered his announcement. Many knew him going back to his youth.
Jonathan Liss, an engineer from West Orange, N.J., said: “Of course it’s going to be tough, but he’s going to work hard and tell people the truth.”
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