07/01/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/30/2016 05:59 EDT

Chris Christie's 'high-stakes' bid for the Republican nomination

Even to his former New Jersey classmates, who waited hours outside Livingston High School unable watch him declare his presidential candidacy in the flesh, Chris Christie was always the amiable guy with the larger-than-life political persona.

In this instance, he also showed the common touch in leaving his security detail behind to clown with old friends and pose for selfies.

"Good luck to you, baby! Go do it, baby!" a supporter shouted, reaching for a handshake.

"You know we'll do it! Always have, baby," Christie called back.

To whoops and cheers in a steamy school gymnasium on Wednesday, the physically imposing governor of New Jersey launched his Republican presidential campaign with all the good-times vibes of a high-school reunion.

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Outside, near the Livingston Lancers football field, the good times kept on rolling.

"Last night I was looking at Facebook and watching these friends of mine from high school who were out 'pre-gaming,'" Christie told a hooting crowd near the football field. "And 'pre-gaming,' apparently, involved food and a significant amount of alcohol."

An odd joke, perhaps, for a presidential candidate. But not for Christie, whose admirers reiterated over and over again their respect for a home-town guy with Jersey swagger "who tells it like it is" and "never forgets where he came from."

Indeed, if ever there was a place that could recapture Christie's much younger, much lankier glory days, Livingston High would be it.

New Hampshire or bust

Decades before last year's "Bridgegate" scandal would darken his path to star Republican, he was a catcher for the Livingston Lancers, a shaggy-haired prankster who orchestrated a legendary rooftop spray-painting caper for his class of 1980.

He was also a budding statesman who cut his political teeth in student council.

There could hardly have been a more fitting stage, then, for the 52-year-old governor with the slumping approval ratings to announce the latest glory-chasing chapter of his career.

"I am not running for president of the United States as a surrogate for being elected prom king of America," Christie said on Wednesday.

Though national opinion polls have him running well back in the crowded Republican presidential field, for those who knew him back in the day, he's got the right stuff.

"Strong faith, a strong commitment to people, he's a guy who truly tells you where he stands," said Jim Mignone, a high-school friend of Christie's who was among an estimated 200 people crammed into the humid auxiliary gym for Wednesday's announcement.

"He was the president of our class, and I think he'd be a great president of the United States."

Jodi Sokaler, who graduated in Christie's class of 1980, remembered him as a master orator.

"When he would get up and speak to the class, he really made people listen," she said.

But it won't be Christie's high-school chums or even his home state that will decide his fate in the Republican primaries, many political observers say.

In fact, much of that will likely fall to voters in the state he immediately flew to following his declaration on Wednesday.

"It will all come down to New Hampshire," said Jarryd Gonzales, a Republican political strategist.

Of the three early primary contests — in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina  —  Gonzales says only New Hampshire shows any promise for Christie.

Social conservatives have shown more of an impact in Iowa and South Carolina, he said, while New Hampshire's more "independent-minded" electorate may be more receptive to what he has to say about entitlement reform than abortion.

"It'll be a high-risk, high-reward, surgical approach that gives him a shot at winning the nomination," Gonzales said. "That surgical path has to begin in New Hampshire, and he has to finish in the top two, or his campaign is pretty much dead on arrival."


So far, political observers have portrayed Christie as a long-shot contender, one whose approval ratings even in his home state are at just 30 per cent at a time when New Jersey's economy recovery is lagging behind the rest of the nation.

Perhaps most harmful to his political standing was the "Bridgegate" setback, in which it was revealed that a Christie staffer had deliberately engineered gridlock on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, allegedly as an act of retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.,who did not endorse Christie in the 2013 gubernatorial election.

"Without Bridgegate, I don't think there would be so many Republican candidates running. There would be five candidates, and Chris Christie would be the leader among them," said Matthew Hale, an associate professor in political science at Seton Hall University.

"The devastating thing about Bridgegate is it really feeds into the narrative that he's a bully."

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The political reality is Christie will need face-time in New Hampshire and will use his strength — a straight-talking style and a natural facility with the town-hall format — to connect with voters there.

"The only other politician I've ever seen as good at a town-hall meeting is Bill Clinton," Hale said.

"Christie has that ability to capture moments and connect with people, and he'll be doing it a lot in New Hampshire. But that's going to make people in New Jersey grumpy, and he'll pay the price for that back home."

For his part, Gonzales said Christie still stands a chance at emerging as a top-tier candidate, given his proven ability to raise money fast and position himself as a moderate Republican choice.

"Christie's star has noticeably fallen, but I think it can shine again, in large part because of his high candidate IQ and his experience as a governor in a blue state where he's had to work both sides of the aisle to get things done," Gonzales said.

Hale isn't counting him out either, noting Christie has pulled together a strong digital team that has apparently focused on uploading his best town-hall moments as slickly produced videos.

"It won't be an easy road," Hale said. "But here in New Jersey, we're routinely surprised by the way Chris Christie pulls himself out of seeming disasters."