Don’t ask Chris Christie what “lane” there is for him in the Republican primary. Don’t ask how someone polling at 1 percent, who is sharply critical of Donald J. Trump, could possibly win the 2024 nomination when the party base has no tolerance for attacks on the former president.
“I think there’s this fiction about lanes,” Mr. Christie said on Thursday in New Hampshire, his second exploratory visit in a month. “There is one lane, OK? There are not multiple lanes. At the front of that lane right now is Donald Trump. If you want to win the Republican nomination for president, you have to beat Donald Trump and get to the front of that lane.”
Mr. Christie, the former two-term governor of New Jersey and unsuccessful 2016 presidential candidate, was visiting the Republicans’ first primary state as part of a trial period that he said would culminate by mid-May in a decision about a 2024 run.
He spoke to a small group of reporters who came to observe him in a discussion with a dozen people at a residential treatment program for drug-addicted pregnant women. Addiction is an issue Mr. Christie has long been passionate about, and he visited the same program, Hope on Haven Hill, eight years ago while running for president. “I thought before Covid that this is the public health crisis of our generation, and I’m even more convinced now the Covid has passed that it is,” he told the group.
Afterward, he portrayed the visit as an exercise in reconnecting with people who had supported his 2016 campaign, which ended abruptly after his sixth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, despite intensive campaigning in the state. He also met this week in Washington with former donors and campaign employees to gauge their reactions to a new run.
It’s clear that Mr. Christie sees potential in being the most outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, whom he has bashed over 2020 election lies as well as for Republican defeats in the past three national elections.
But that tack may be a losing proposition. Republicans have been abandoning the most prominent Trump alternative, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, to rally around the former president. A poll this week of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Mr. DeSantis falling to 22 percent, from 43 percent in a January survey by the same pollster. Mr. Trump far outdistanced rivals, at 42 percent. Mr. Christie was at 1 percent.
“I don’t think that anybody is going to beat Donald Trump by sidling up to him, playing footsie with him and pretending that you’re almost like him,” Mr. Christie said. “I’m going to tell people the facts about his presidency and about his conduct. If they decide they want that again, that’s up to them.”
Later on Thursday, Mr. Christie held a town hall-style event at New England College in Henniker, N.H. He spoke to about 100 students and a smattering of adults seated in a semicircle of white folding chairs.
He ran through a menu of what he identified as Mr. Trump’s policy failures in office, then took aim at his urging supporters to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which Mr. Trump passively watched on TV. “And when he saw that, you know what he did? He ate his well-done cheeseburger, and sat there and did nothing.”
He expressed disgust that Republicans would think of renominating Mr. Trump. “Donald Trump is a TV star. Nothing more, nothing less,” Mr. Christie said. “And let me suggest to you that if we put it back to the White House, the reruns will be worse than the original show.”
Mr. Christie, who was one of the most combative governors of the modern era — eager to joust with lawmakers, hecklers or New Jersey residents who confronted him in forums — claimed, nonetheless, that what the country needed is a return to civility, and he was just the one to restore it.
It did not prevent him, though, from getting in a jab at President Biden’s age. Should the president win a second term, Mr. Christie suggested, he might well die in office and be succeeded by his vice president. “A vote for Donald Trump,” he said, implying that he would surely lose, “is a vote for Kamala Harris.”
Taking questions, Mr. Christie was asked by a teenager whether, given Mr. Trump’s attempt to subvert democracy, he would have voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Christie demurred. He still would have supported Mr. Trump, he said, because he preferred his policies.
Afterward, voters said that they appreciated Mr. Christie’s candor but that it was too early to commit to backing him.
“I hope he runs. I think it’d be good to see him in the mix this year,” said J.P. Marzullo, a retiree and former Republican state representative from Deering, N.H., who supported Mr. Christie in 2016. But he wanted to play the field. “I’m still looking at some other people right now,” he said.
Josh Merriam, 19, a student from Gilford, N.H., said the evening was “the first presidential hearing-thing I’ve ever been to,” and said his interest was piqued by Mr. Christie. “I do like Trump,” he said, but then he quoted back Mr. Christie’s warning that a Trump vote was akin to a vote for Ms. Harris. That was not a prospect he cared to contemplate.