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KEENE, N.H. — This is not the way Chris Christie expected to arrive at Lindy's Diner.

Four years ago, Republican donors begged the then-popular New Jersey governor to jump into the presidential race. Two years ago, he won overwhelmingly in his Democratic-leaning state and was hailed on the cover of Time magazine as a potential GOP savior.

From bridgegate to credit rating downgrades, it's been a steep fall since. But Christie is running anyway as a longshot, counting on his brash, Jersey-style persona to fight through a densely packed Republican field to a breakthrough showing in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.

Chris Christie speaks to John Harwood in Keene, New Hampshire.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC

"Are there things that I wish had gone better?" he asked over milkshakes at the iconic stop for presidential candidate. "Of course. But I think if you look at any governor in any state that's running, there are things that they wish would have gone differently or better."

"The race became very different when Jeb Bush got into it," Christie added. "That's what changed everything. If the son and brother of two former presidents gets into a race, well then he becomes the establishment front runner immediately—and you aren't. So I'll run a different race than the one I may have envisioned a while ago."

Despite his oft-demonstrated propensity for blustery exchanges with critics, he insists he won't try to match the decibel or outrage levels of his longtime friend Donald Trump or others like Mike Huckabee, who last week accused President Barack Obama of marching Israelis "to the door of the oven" with his Iran nuclear deal.

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"You came to a town hall meeting of mine last night," he said, referring to a gathering the previous evening before a packed house in a Keene pub. "It was a two-hour, really thoughtful, really enthusiastic discussion about really important issues. That will not lead the news this morning, right? What will lead the news—and I saw it on the "Today Show" this morning—was Mike Huckabee.

"Some people are feeling the pressure to try to be outrageous to get on the news," he said. "If you think you've got the best product, you've got to be patient. Slow, steady progress. So I'm not going to get into the hyperbole."

He's casting himself as the candidate most willing to tackle serious issues with specific, if controversial, ideas. He has proposed raising the retirement age and denying Social Security benefits to senior citizens with more than $200,000 of annual income. He has proposed eliminating most income tax deductions—including the deduction for state and local levies that helps residents of high-tax states like New Jersey—to get the top rate down to 28 percent.

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"Seven years ago, a majority of the American people bought a bumper sticker," Christie said. "They bought hope and change. And you know what that really meant."

He spoke sharply of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton's economic proposals, including her plan to provide tax incentives for corporations to share profits with workers and to require investors to hold assets at least six years in order to pay the current 20 percent rate on capital gains.

"She's wrong," Christie said. "That's all baloney. Because what she's doing is just to mask a tax increase. She wants to increase capital gains taxes."

"Mrs. Clinton does not know what she's talking about," he continued. "When you increase capital gains taxes, what you're going to do is discourage investment. And when you discourage investment, what you're going to do is slow job creation even more. You know what her other proposals are to create jobs? Paid sick leave and raise the minimum wage. I don't think you can find any credible economist in America who thinks that instituting paid sick leave and raising the minimum wage is actually going to create jobs. Raising the minimum wage doesn't move anybody in the middle class."

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In the first 2016 Republican debate on Fox News this week, Christie may face criticism from more conservative rivals of his decision to expand Medicaid in New Jersey under Obamacare. He insists he isn't worried.

"They don't have to buy it," he said. "It was what was best for the state of New Jersey. I'm going to make decisions based on what is best for the people that I'm elected to represent. That's what I did on Medicaid expansion."

The good news for Christie: Current polls make it likely he will make the top-10 candidate cutoff to be on that debate stage. Republicans may not look at him as they did a couple of years ago, but at least for a while in this campaign they'll have a chance to hear him.