Not too long ago, some influential Republicans viewed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the GOP candidate who could win back the White House in 2016. His victories in Democratic-leaning New Jersey and brash aggressiveness inspired confidence in his ability to take on Hillary Clinton. But then Christie was hobbled by the bridge-traffic scandal, downgrades in his state's credit rating, and the entry of establishment favorite Jeb Bush into the 2016 race. Now Donald Trump has supplanted him as the toughest-talking candidate in the field.
Christie has jumped into the White House race anyway, even as he lags in the polls. He has sought to grab the spotlight with specific proposals on controversial subjects like entitlement reform (raising the retirement age and eliminating Social Security benefits for retirees with incomes above $200,000) and taxes (eliminating enough deductions to lower the top rate to 28 percent).
He sat down to discuss the campaign over milkshakes with me at Lindy's Diner in Keene, N.H. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: What's going on in your party right now? It's a weird primary.
CHRISTIE: It always is, John. You're telling me it wasn't this weird when Herman Cain was winning nationally four years ago or Michele Bachmann was winning nationally? It's the summer. We've got seven months till anybody votes. We've got a big competitive field. And that's a good thing.
I remember coming up here four years ago to campaign for Mitt Romney. And we had people saying, "Oh, the field's not big enough. There's not enough good candidates." Now they're saying there's too many. New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina get to be Goldilocks. They get to decide which porridge is just right.
HARWOOD: You've got Ted Cruz calling the Senate leader of his party a liar. You've got Mike Huckabee saying that the president's marching Israel to 'the door of the oven' in the Iran deal. And you've got Trump saying all this stuff that he's saying. Only the loudest or most outrageous voice gets heard. You're going to have to have a fistfight.
CHRISTIE: Won't happen.
That's partly the fault of the candidate who's saying those things, partly the fault of the media who's covering it. You came to a town hall meeting of mine last night. It was a two-hour, really thoughtful, really enthusiastic discussion about really important issues. That will not lead the news this morning. 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. 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.
HARWOOD: How do you see your role in this race? Donald Trump's casting himself as the straight-talk guy. And how does this race compare to the one that you imagined when you thought about it in 2012 and when you were on the cover of Time magazine in 2013?
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CHRISTIE: How would I see myself in this race? As being the most specific, most substantive guy. I put out more specific proposals, greater detail than anybody else on this race by far. Seven years ago, a majority of the American people bought a bumper sticker. They bought hope and change. And you know what that really meant.
Donald's telling his version of the truth. And that's fine. We'll see what people decide after a long period of time. Not whether you're getting the most attention or not at any one particular time.
The race became very different when Jeb Bush got into it. That's what changed everything. If the son and brother of two former presidents gets into a race, 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 when he wasn't in.
HARWOOD: I went to your town hall. You've very good in those settings. You have a lot of political skills. But it seems to me that given all the things that have happened—bridgegate, how you're positioned vis-a-vis the rest of your party, the credit downgrades and all that—you just are playing a weak hand. You think the individual charm, skill, communications ability of a politician can fight those things?
CHRISTIE: It's not only that. It's also my record. I've governed in a deeply blue state, capped property taxes, vetoed income tax increases, cut business taxes, cut the budget $2.5 billion less than it was eight years ago in discretionary spending, 9,500 fewer employees. In the eight years before I became governor, there was zero net private sector job growth in New Jersey. And in the last 5½ years, we've got 192,000 new private-sector jobs.
So it is those communication skills, which are extraordinarily important for a president to be successful, plus the results that produced in New Jersey. Are there things that I wish had gone better? 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.
HARWOOD: Let me go back to what's going on in your party. The country's getting more diverse. What do you say to people in your party—mostly older, white voters—who think that the country is changing in ways that offend them?
CHRISTIE: Change is always difficult for people to accept. But there's always been a majority of the people in this country who have stood up and said, "If our country is changing in a way which we believe is positive, we're going to support it. And if we disagree with it, we're going to have our voices be heard." There's nothing wrong with that. That's the strength of our country. Let all these voices be heard. But in the end we usually land in the right place in America.
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I don't think this is any more problematic a time in our country than any other time in my lifetime. I was born in 1962. The '60s were an incredibly tumultuous time where people were saying exactly the same thing about our country.
I love a diverse and growing America. That's how my grandparents and great-grandparents got to this country—by emigrating here from Sicily and from Ireland. I always want to see an America that's growing and becoming a better country tomorrow than it was yesterday. What happened in the past is a proof point.
HARWOOD: John Kasich's at 60 percent in Ohio, a huge swing state, and you're under 40 percent in your own state. Isn't that a problem? Haven't you had slower job growth than other states?
CHRISTIE: I've been around a year longer than all these other guys. John and Scott [Walker of Wisconsin], those guys just went through a significant re-election campaign where they spent tens of millions of dollars promoting themselves inside their own states. But Scott's numbers are about where mine are.
Let's remember something. In New Jersey, there's 750,000 more Democrats than Republicans. The fact that I got 60 percent for re-election is a miracle.
I've been able to get a lot of things through my Democratic legislature, including a business tax cut, but not a cut in the second highest individual tax rates in America. We're competing in a slow national economy with lots of other states whose tax situation is better than ours. Now there's certain things you can do and there's certain things that you can't do 'cause you're not a dictator.
HARWOOD: You're not running on the New Jersey miracle.
CHRISTIE: No. New Jersey is 3 yards and a cloud of dust, John. Miracles are from God. What's happening in New Jersey is not a miracle. What's happening is grind-it-out progress on behalf of the people that I work for.
HARWOOD: Let's talk about the economic side. For 40 years, middle-class wages have not gone up. Hillary Clinton says, "I've got a series of proposals to deal with that." One of them: tax incentives for businesses to share their profits. Another: change capital gains taxes to push investment to the future. Is she right?
CHRISTIE: No, she's wrong. 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. 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.
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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.
To say fast-food workers are going to get a $15 minimum wage—let me tell you what fast food companies are going to do. You're going to walk up to a counter and you're going to have an iPad. That's the way it's going to work. Then what are these social engineers going to say to the people behind that counter who lost their jobs?
We already have profit-sharing in this country. This is Mrs. Clinton wanting to pick the winners and losers. I want the free enterprise system.
HARWOOD: So you're on the debate stage and Scott Walker or others say, "Chris Christie expanded Medicaid under Obamacare." What do you say?
CHRISTIE: I'd say expanding Medicaid was what was best for the people in my state. I took an oath as governor to do what was best. What it did was, make money for the state of New Jersey—about $220 million a year.
HARWOOD: You think conservatives will buy that expanding Medicaid was a profitable thing for the government?
CHRISTIE: They don't have to buy it. 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.
I don't criticize Scott for not expanding Medicaid. If that was his judgment of what was the best for the people of Wisconsin, that's great. John Kasich expanded it in Ohio. Governors are paid to do what is in the best interest of the people of their state, not some national political agenda for themselves.
And by the way, I didn't do it by statute. I did it by executive order. So if the government doesn't keep their promise of no less than 90 percent reimbursement for the expansion, we can reverse it. And if I were governor, we would.