EAST HAMPSTEAD, N.H. (AP) — Despite his single-digit poll numbers and the dominance of another tough-talking candidate, Chris Christie is hearing a clear message from influential Republicans in the early voting states of New Hampshire and Iowa: Keep going.
What he's not hearing are enough commitments.
With Donald Trump still commanding the field and several other rivals apparently rising, the New Jersey governor has been quietly chugging along, holding nearly 30 town hall meetings in New Hampshire, for example.
"Maybe he's the tortoise in this race," said Donna Sytek, a former speaker of the New Hampshire House whose support Christie is courting heavily.
"He's authentic," she said. "He's not scripted. He'll tell you a story from his own experience that illustrates these serious issues."
After he visited her hometown of Salem, Sytek told Christie he is in her 'top three.' She received a text back from Christie saying he'd prefer to be her No. 1.
Still, Sytek hasn't committed. She's received phone calls from Jeb Bush, attended several events with Carly Fiorina and likes Marco Rubio and John Kasich.
This is Christie's conundrum. Many top Republicans in early states are urging him to stick with it, but few are willing right now to give him endorsements that could bring credibility and momentum to his campaign.
Christie's supporters say his poll numbers, low as they are, give them reason to hope he can catch on in early states.
In a September CNN/WMUR New Hampshire Primary Poll, for example, half of likely GOP primary voters said they had a favorable opinion of the governor, up from 31 percent in June.
Christie adviser Mike DuHaime says that shows the campaign's long-haul strategy is making headway in a chaotic, quickly evolving race.
Christie has repeatedly dismissed his placement in the horse race, with so much time left before voting.
"People in New Hampshire know that they don't have to decide right now," Christie said after a campaign event at a lumberyard during a recent three-day campaign swing. "We're going to continue to work to gain their trust and to gain their support and that's what campaigns are all about."
Buoyed by a well-reviewed second debate performance and in response to voters' desire for an outsider candidate, Christie has subtly tweaked his message. He's changed the slogan of his town hall meetings from "Tell it like it is" to "Our Country, Our Presidency." And he has increasingly distanced himself from Washington, saying that he is the consummate outsider by virtue of being a Republican in Democrat-heavy New Jersey. He's also signaled plans to spend more time in Iowa.
Last month, six influential Republicans in Iowa announced their support for Christie. In New Hampshire, his campaign is steadily rolling out lists of support from activists. The lists often lack big names, but several Republican leaders are behind him, such as Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard and Wayne McDonald, a former state party chairman.
Hilliard, who joined Christie in July, said he's lobbying other law enforcement members to get behind Christie. Over lunch recently, he handed Christie a list of names and numbers and Christie began calling them.
"The governor's ready to work for it," Hilliard said.
Beverly Bruce, Mitt Romney's 2012 finance director in the state, held a house party for Christie in late August. She's not signing on with anyone yet but said that crowd gave him positive reviews.
"Very influential people were very impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness from the answers of the questions that were asked," she said. "People came up to him and to me and said, 'He's got my support.'"
Jeb Bradley, the state Senate majority Leader, is another Republican receiving the full-court press from Christie and his team, which means personal phone calls and lunches. Bradley, who could run for governor next year, says Christie is working "exceptionally hard."
"I haven't endorsed anybody, but he's certainly one of the top candidates that I'd want to see," Bradley said.
GOP strategist Mike Dennehy, who led John McCain's 2000 primary victory here, said Christie is running one of the best campaigns in the state.
"I would be one of those people to say 'Do not get out of the race,' if he has enough money to continue running," Dennehy said.
Christie's campaign is one of the few that has yet to release fundraising details for the third quarter. His finance chairman, Ray Washburne, said last month that fundraising was going well, especially after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker left the race.
Christie said: "I'm traveling, we're advertising, I'm paying bills. We're doing fine."
Still, Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman, said it's not a good sign that more people aren't committing to him.
"When voters go see him, instead of being hooked and saying 'I think I found my person,' they're making plans to go see another candidate," Cullen said.
Christie says he's not worried — yet.
"I love when they say yes, but I don't mind the courting," Christie said. "If they're not around in January, then I'll start to get a little nervous."
Colvin reported from Newark, New Jersey.