GOP frontrunner hobnobs in Hamilton

HAMILTON – The floorboards of the Golden Dawn Diner are worn with the scuffling soles of many a politician on the move in Mercer County, and some of them are here today as a black bus with the words “Strong Leadership Now” emblazoned on its side, pulls into the parking lot and GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie descends to street level amid a wave of cheers.

“He’s the right man at the right time,” Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo says in the glass-enclosed entranceway. “He’s tough, and he knows government.”

Christie has his family with him as he plunges into a hoard of cameras and reporters intermingled with well-wishers and he drags them all with him as he trots up the diner’s front steps hearing the other cries come louder now from the sign-shaking Laborers International Union of North America protesters on Mercerville-Whitehorse Road: “Christie equals Bush! Christie equals Bush! Christie equals Bush!”

It’s a hard-edged reference to the former U.S. Attorney’s fundraising on behalf of the former President George W. Bush, who practically bottomed out in New Jersey polls before leaving office on Jan. 20th.

“Maybe those guys can come in and spend some money,” Christie tells Golden Dawn owner Chris Kurnellas as the two men meet for a close-quarters handshake and bedlam closes the gap between the front door and the candidate in the form of microphones, cameras and elbows.

Christie, who’s making his second stop on his way south as he tours New Jersey on the first formal day of his campaign, apologizes to Kurnellas for the traffic. Even Kurnellas – who’s probably seen every New Jersey politician in recent memory blaze through his place on his or her way to political glory or oblivion – seems impressed.

“It’s a little inconvenient,” he admits, “but not really, Not really at all.”

Christie’s on the move, going from table to table before he settles into the diner’s southwest corner and a hundred people at least and all manner of equipment lurch in that direction to keep up with him– including Bencivengo, Hamilton Councilman Tom Goodwin, and many others. The imbalance creates no apparent shift in the restaurant’s underpinnings as the candidate stands engulfed by onlookers, two of his four children at his side, as he makes brief remarks with the TV cameras blazing in his eyes.

It’s a riff on what he already said earlier in Newark, something about “enthusiastically getting in the race for governor.” It’s so packed, it’s difficult to hear.

General consultant Mike DuHaime remembers the Golden Dawn from 2003 when Hamilton’s own Bill Baroni cut his own whirlwind through the booths on his way to winning an Assembly seat.

Now state Sen. Baroni (R-Mercer) was at Seton Hall University today teaching, but he took an on-the-ground call from concerning Christie’s appearance in Hamilton.

“Chris is the kind of candidate who appeals very well to the people of Hamilton, the largest swing district in New Jersey,” he says.

Notwithstanding the front row appearances in Newark this morning of state Sen. Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., (R-Westfield) and Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Parsiappany), among others, GOP sources say the campaign will be cautious about packaging establishment candidate Christie in the architecture of party power, prefering to keep him in man-of-the-people proximity to voters rather than ensconced in the arms of Trenton regulars.

Outside, Christie’s brother Todd tells a departing diner, ‘No problem,” they can move the bus to let him get out.

Tomorrow, Christie plans to continue his tour, and his campaign will have the bus then but probably not much longer after that as the GOP frontrunner keeps on the trail and more than likely will find himself doubling back on the Golden Dawn.

GOP frontrunner hobnobs in Hamilton