My story in today's paper out of Christie's 100th (!) town hall meeting:
STAFFORD TOWNSHIP, N.J. - They began on stages, in front of small crowds, and starred a new governor selling his tax policies to constituents.
Nearly three years later, Gov. Christie's town hall meetings are theaters-in-the-round with soundtracks, videos, and huge audiences. They are communications juggernauts that have helped propel Christie from rookie leader of a medium-sized state to potential Republican presidential candidate.
On Wednesday at his 100th town hall meeting, held in a church gymnasium in this Ocean County town, Christie served up many of the same jokes and the theatrics that audiences in all 21 counties have experienced since February 2010. But his anecdotes and answers to questions he fielded were focused on Sandy and devoid of the fiery partisanship that has kept the TV cameras coming back.
At times, Christie exhibited an aw-shucks attitude about the growth of his town hall meetings and fame. He still can't believe his name is on the door to the governor's office, he said.
"The one constant in all of it is you," he told the room, in one of several instances in which he sought to strike an emotional chord.
More than 30,000 people have attended Christie's town hall meetings, the governor's office estimates. The throng Wednesday was too large for the 800-capacity gym, forcing about 250 people into an overflow room long before Christie took the stage.
The audience was made up mostly of Christie partisans, as they usually are. They laughed, they awww-ed, and they applauded - sometimes on their feet. Largely white, with more than a few members who were white-haired, the crowd reflected the town hall meetings' usual demographics.
The events' national exposure comes later: Christie's team splices them into YouTube clips (168 so far) for wide circulation (more than 2.6 million views and counting).
Wednesday's landmark town hall meeting lacked the fireworks and bizarre incidents of some earlier ones: the governor calling a former Navy SEAL in Florence an "idiot," a boy in Spotswood embedding his question with an anti-Semitic remark, a woman in Hopatcong calling Christie "hot and sexy."
The town hall meetings have generated controversy. Democrats often point out inaccuracies in Christie's remarks and defend themselves from his attacks. In 2012, Christie called a lawmaker an "arrogant SOB," to the crowd's delight.
Democrats accuse him of using taxpayer money to stage the "campaign events." (The administration has never said what they cost.) And they're held during the day, when working people - such as teachers with whom Christie has battled - are less likely to come. None has been held in Camden or Newark, where the urban poor could challenge him on his economic policies.
Most questions Wednesday were about Sandy, which pummeled nearby Long Beach Island.
A tearful Joanna Andreou, who lives in a 1,400-square-foot home 25 feet from the water in Beach Haven West on the island, told Christie she can't afford her taxes, increasing flood insurance payments, and the pilings that she now must put under her house.
"To me, this seems like the end of the American dream," she said.
Christie responded by referencing the liberal rocker whose love for the Jersey Shore has made them fast friends since Sandy: "I was talking to Bruce Springsteen about this and he said this was his biggest worry. . . . We don't want [the Shore] to be the haven for just the wealthy.
"Right now you feel lost and without a choice," Christie said. "I understand that."
The governor has called on more than 1,100 people at his town hall meetings, his staff said. Lawyer Debra Nicholson of Sparta was the one who called Christie "hot and sexy" in 2011. She was referring to a poll that had found him hotter politically than President Obama.
"I was amazed by how quick he is on responses and how engaging and funny he is," Nicholson said in an interview. "I just see a guy that's smart and not afraid to stand for what he believes in. That's so refreshing with politicians."
William Brown, the former Navy SEAL with whom Christie tangled last year in an argument over the proposed merger of Rutgers and Rowan universities, sees something else.
"It's a political Chris Christie circus to distract us from the real issues," he said in an interview.
After nearly two hours Wednesday, Christie said his staff had signaled that he had time for just one more question.
"Awwww," the crowd moaned.