Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) campaign is honing in on New Hampshire as one of the most important states for helping him defeat former President Trump in the GOP presidential primary.

While Trump maintains a wide lead over the rest of the GOP primary field, including Christie, Republicans say the former New Jersey governor is making some headway in the Granite State.

And there are some signs of encouragement for Christie: A recent Emerson College Polling survey found the former New Jersey governor gaining ground on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) for second place.

“I think that he is really differentiating himself as the candidate alternative to Trump,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

“Trump for all intents and purposes is an incumbent and everyone in politics knows that if you want to challenge an incumbent, you got to make a very good case to have voters reject that incumbent and vote for change,” he continued. “And I think that his message and what he’s doing in the amount of time he’s spending here is helping Chris Christie become that alternative candidate.”

Since Christie launched his second presidential campaign in June during a town hall in the Granite State, the former New Jersey governor has made New Hampshire the focal point in his campaign, much as he did during his first run for president in the 2016 cycle.

He’s talked to voters at town hall-style events in places like Concordand New Londonwhere he’s made his criticism of Trump central to his pitch to voters.

“Let me be clear, in case I have not been already — the person I am talking about who is obsessed with the mirror, who never admits a mistake, who never admits a fault and who always find someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right is Donald Trump,” Christie said during his campaign launch in Manchester.

Tell It Like It Is, a super PAC supporting Christie’s candidacy, recently hosted the former New Jersey governor at a town hall event last week in Salem, N.H., where Gov. Chris Sununu (R) introduced Christie. The pro-Christie super PAC last week also launched a $400,000-backed ad campaign in the state.

“It’s a place that is I think suited better for him. I think polling certainly shows that right now,” Christie campaign adviser Michael DuHaime said in explaining why they’re focusing on New Hampshire this cycle.

In a caucus, “you have a … smaller number of folks that come out. It’s larger in a primary and then even larger in an open primary, which is where independents can vote, and which is the case in New Hampshire,” DuHaime said, adding that “the larger broader electorate is conducive to him and his message.”

Polling suggests that Christie’s message urging Republicans to move on from Trump is starting to resonate in the Granite State. 

An Emerson College Polling survey released on Tuesday found Trump leading the 2024 GOP field among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire at 49 percent, while Christie came in at 9 percent and DeSantis at 8 percent. Given that Christie, DeSantis and several other candidates fall within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points, Christie, DeSantis and several other candidates are statistically tied. 

Meanwhile, a NH Journal/co-efficient poll out earlier this month placed Trump at 43 percent, with DeSantis and Christie tied for second at 9 percent, and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley placing third at 7 percent. 

Still, a RealClearPolitics polling average of New Hampshire primary polls shows Christie is running third to DeSantis in the state, with Trump at 42.3 percent, DeSantis at 14 percent and Christie at 7.7 percent. 

“I think Christie’s theory of the case is ‘I know New Hampshire well. New Hampshire knows me well. I have a chance to really exceed expectations here,’” said Republican strategist Jim Merrill. 

“And my guess his hope is that, you know, if he does well in New Hampshire, by the time New Hampshire’s finished voting and it comes after Iowa, the field is somewhat winnowed down, and he gets to what I suspect would be, you know, closer to a one-on-one shot against Trump,” he continued.

So far, Christie has leaned into more town hall-style events in addition to traditional media appearances, and DuHaime confirmed that the campaign hasn’t been up on the airwaves yet in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. But that hasn’t stopped Christie’s presence from being felt in the state.

“I don’t know if I’ve gotten a mailer from him or his super PAC yet,” Levesque said. “But I can tell you, I’ve run into him physically twice — by accident.”

Christie has also signaled that he’s going to be spending more time in South Carolina, holding his first town hall in the Palmetto State last month.

“We are going to spend as much time here in South Carolina as we spend in New Hampshire, which is a lot,” the former New Jersey governor said, according to The State

Christie, of course, is not the only candidate spending time in the Granite State. DeSantis, Haley, Scott and others have made treks to the state in recent months. The super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, is hosting several events for him on Saturday in New Hampshire in Manchester and Newport. 

The DeSantis campaign for their part is brushing off the recent polling from New Hampshire, saying there’s a long way to go in the months ahead.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine-inning game,” said Ethan Zorfas, New Hampshire senior advisor for the DeSantis campaign, adding later, “…I think right now it’s about who’s putting the work on the ground and getting the endorsements.”

Zorfas said that DeSantis’s strategy in the state “is meeting voters [at] town halls, meeting in backyard barbecues, and getting to know him on a personal level. That’s what we’re doing.”

After participating in Never Back Down’s events this weekend, DeSantis will have trekked through seven of the 10 counties in the state, according to his campaign, which has also touted the Florida governor’s local endorsements in the race.

If Republicans are viewing New Hampshire as the make-or-break state for Christie, his campaign isn’t viewing it that way. DuHaime said that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are key to all of the 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls. Still, his campaign is pleased about where he’s landed in the polls.  

“I don’t know if the first few months could’ve gotten much better for Christie in terms of what we hoped and expected,” DuHaime said of the recent polling in the state.

Still, Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign has demonstrated there’s challenges for primarily focusing on the Granite State. Christie placed tenth in Iowa in 2016 and placed sixth in New Hampshire, leading the former New Jersey governor to ultimately drop out of the race.

It’s also one that Republican strategist Mike Dennehy is intimately familiar with when he worked on the late Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid as the Arizona senator lasered in on New Hampshire and largely skipped Iowa.

President George W. Bush trounced McCain in Iowa in 2000, with the Arizona senator placing fifth. McCain beat Bush by double digits in New Hampshire, but McCain later lost South Carolina, placing second in the state. 

“For Chris Christie, I believe it’s a fitting strategy to prioritize New Hampshire over everything else,” Dennehy explained. “But he is going to have to have some kind of next step in place.”

Dennehy argued that New Hampshire is critical for the former New Jersey governor.

“There’s really no doubt about it,” he said. “If he doesn’t perform well in New Hampshire, there is no case to make for a Christie candidacy.”