U.S. presidential candidate Christie brings his message to Mount Pleasant

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was surrounded by about 200 people at the Liberty Tap Room on Monday where he fielded questions about terrorism, the economy and Social Security. The GOP presidential candidate’s wife, Mary Pat, joined him at his “Tell It Like It Is” town hall-style meeting.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie kept rotating 360 degrees around a restaurant here, fielding questions about terrorism, the economy and Social Security — almost everything except the other GOP presidential candidate from his region who has dominated the news as of late.

None of the approximately 200 people attending Christie’s “Tell It Like It Is” town hall meeting asked Christie about Republican businessman Donald Trump’s recent criticism of Sen. John McCain’s war-time service, but Christie tackled the issue afterward with reporters.

“I’ve said this from the beginning. Donald is going to be as serious a candidate as he wants to be,” Christie said.

“I’m not spending any more time talking about his comments. They’re self-evident. ... (McCain) is an American hero, period.”

Christie did not join some of his GOP cohorts in claiming that Trump’s comments on McCain should disqualify him from the race. “The voters will decide,” he said. “It’s not for us to make that decision.”

Many who filled the Liberty Tap Room’s main dining area, plus a nearby stair and balcony, on Monday night were faces not often seen at local Republican events.

“I recognize almost no faces that are regular members of the party,” said Charleston County Republican Chair Larry Kobrovsky. “This is very healthy.”

One new face was Joshua Eckert, a rising seventh-grader here who wore his Boy Scout uniform and asked Christie what he would do to improve the publicity police officers get.

Christie, a former federal prosecutor, answered by talking about his efforts to help improve police in Camden, N.J. “We need to get police officers and the community to work together,” he said.

Eckert, whose father is a police officer, said he thought Christie “did really good. If I could vote, I would vote for him.”

Christie began with a 15-minute stump speech in which he blasted President Barack Obama’s proposed Iranian nuclear deal and vowed to reform Social Security so it doesn’t go bankrupt.

He noted many consider entitlement reform the “third rail” of American politics, one that will electrocute any politician who touches it. “I decided we’re going to hug it,” he said, adding the nation should stop paying retirement benefits to the wealthiest Americans to help keep it solvent.

When asked later why he was attacking Social Security, Christie responded, “The fact is I’m not attacking Social Security. I’m protecting Social Security.”

The bulk of his time was spent answering about 16 questions, often mixing personal stories with policy ideas.

Juan Soto Jr. of Johns Island asked how Christie would help the nation’s large Millennial generation get jobs and succeed.

Christie said the nation must do more to control student debt, partly by increasing transparency in college costs. “My generation, we’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s your generation I’m worried about.”

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Soto, 20, whose family is from Mexico and who has lived in the Lowcountry since 2002, said he liked Christie’s answer and is considering him along with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the other dozen-plus GOP contenders.

Some questions were open-ended, such as one from the woman who asked why she should vote for him. Christie answered by noting his executive experience, his knowledge of when to compromise and when to fight and how he was tested by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which “more than anything I’ve done as governor got me ready for whatever I’m going to confront as president of the United States.”

Asked about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, Christie talked about a program aimed at criminals who illegally owned guns. “What we’ve got confused about in this country is we’re thinking we don’t have enough laws,” he said. “We’re not enforcing the laws we have.”

Gibbs Knotts, chair of the College of Charleston’s political science department, attended and later said he thought Christie came across well on several issues during the event, which lasted more than 90 minutes.

Afterward, as Christie and his wife, Mary Pat, spent about 30 more minutes posing for pictures, Knotts also noted that Christie’s “Tell It Like It Is” style “is so un-Southern, New Jersey and South Carolina are as opposite as you can get, politically.”

When asked if the governor of one of the nation’s most Democratic states would have trouble resonating in South Carolina, one of the nation’s most Republican states, Christie said he didn’t feel any difference between the two.

“I think people make a lot of assumptions based upon certain stereotypes or backgrounds about who is going to do well where,” Christie said. “I think that’s why campaigns matter. We just work real hard so people get to know us, and we’ll see where the chips fall. I think I’ll do very well in South Carolina.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.