CLAREMONT, New Hampshire (AP) — Chris Christie is the Republican presidential candidate to beat in second-to-vote New Hampshire — so say the super PACs helping the New Jersey governor's rivals.
Marco Rubio's backers recently put $1 million into anti-Christie advertising, according to filings with federal election regulators.
That follows a Christie-themed mailing earlier this week to New Hampshire voters, paid for by New Day for America, a super PAC for John Kasich. And Jeb Bush's Right to Rise super PAC features Christie in a new ad that promotes Bush as the best of the governors — past or present — in the race for the GOP nomination.
All of this fresh attention is a testament to Christie's growing momentum on New Hampshire, where he is battling Rubio, Bush and Kasich to become the more traditional party alternative to billionaire businessman Donald Trump, a political outsider who has led the state in most preference polls.
"Chris Christie is moving in New Hampshire, that's obvious," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who credited Christie's rise to strong showings on the debate stage. He's "back on the radar screen all across the country," Luntz said.
The New Jersey governor, whose "telling it like it is" theme predated Trump's unexpected rise, has two more opportunities to shine in debates before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary election.
Christie finished a four-day swing through the state on Wednesday, where he held a series of town halls and meet-and-greets. His events have been drawing noticeably larger crowds than several months ago.
"There's no question that Chris Christie has been picking up a lot of speed," said Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "You're starting to feel the momentum for that."
But Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire Republican consultant who is not affiliated with any candidate warned about the potential downsides. "It's very risky," he warned of negative advertising. He said that was especially true of Rubio, whose aggressive super PAC risks sullying his positive reputation.
With a dozen Republicans in the GOP nomination race and it has been difficult for any one of them to maintain traction, which is why Christie seems to be delighting in the attention — even if it's coming in the form of attack ads.
"Other campaigns have started to attack us online, on TV and in your mailbox. Why? Because, they're nervous," Christie wrote in a fundraising email to supporters on Tuesday. His top strategist, Mike DuHaime, said the reason other candidates are hitting Christie is obvious: "Because we are on the rise and they are not."
Christie dismissed his competitors in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, describing the ads and stepped-up rhetoric as "just another day at the ranch for me."
"We've got a message here in New Hampshire that's resonating with voters, connecting with them, and that I'm the best messenger in this field. And I think that's why they're concerned and that's what they're doing," he said.
The new ads by Conservative Solutions PAC, a super PAC funded by Rubio allies, are particularly sharp-elbowed.
One commercial says New Jersey residents want to leave the state. It then ticks through the state's high taxes and low job growth and turns to a scandal where top aides to Christie shut down a bridge as retribution for a mayor who didn't support his re-election.
"New Jersey: High taxes, weak economy, scandals," the ad concludes. "Not what we need in the White House."
The Rubio super PAC's other ad shows image after image of the governor and President Barack Obama, smiling. "Chris Christie could well be Obama's favorite Republican governor," the narrator says.
Its wordy closing argument: "One high-tax, Common Core, liberal-energy-loving, Obamacare-Medicaid-expanding president is enough."
The group also launched a website, christierecord.com, featuring the same messages.
The mailing from a super PAC helping Kasich, the Ohio governor, tells voters that Christie talks "tough" but has a "weak record" as an executive.
"We've contrasted Gov. Kasich's successful record with that of Christie and other candidates in the past and will continue to share the governor's record with New Hampshire voters moving forward," said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for the group.
Bykowicz reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.