During a speech last week, Gov. Chris Christie slammed New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan for being ambitious.

“She will use this platform as a way to increase her own visibility and run for the next job,” Christie said, referring to Hassan’s possible bid for the U.S. Senate, according to The Associated Press.

Back home, New Jersey voters feel the same way — about Christie.

A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Tuesday found that 68 percent of voters thought his recent decisions on bills were more about his potential run for president than what’s best for New Jersey. It also found that just 34 percent believed Christie would do well in the Oval Office.

Independents, a key for Christie in previous elections, overwhelmingly preferred Hillary Clinton over Christie, with 60 percent saying Clinton would make a good president, compared with 28 percent for Christie.

It’s unlikely that New Jersey will decide the 2016 election. But the poll shows that if Christie is to be the next president of the United States, he will have to bounce back from recent gaffes, lingering scandals, a perception that he cares more about presidential ambitions than governing and a belief that he’s a bully.

But how?

“The biggest issue he may have to overcome is ironically also one of his strengths — his tendency to speak bluntly and give his unabashed opinion on issues,” James Ronan, a political science professor at Rowan University, wrote in an email.

Ronan said Christie’s blunt personality may resonate with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there’s a fine line between being a genuine candidate and being “someone who just speaks his mind.”

Rutgers-Eagleton Poll Manager Ashley Koning said Christie’s attitude and personality are problems with voters in New Jersey. In the poll, “bully” was the most common word selected by respondents to describe Christie, at 10 percent. It was also the top choice for independents at 9 percent. However, Koning said, Christie’s attitude worked when he came off as a “fighter” and a “bully on their side.”

“It was his strength during Sandy,” Koning said. “Now it’s flipped on his head. Now it’s a weakness for him.”

The national media has extensively covered Christie’s trips to football games, early primary states and Europe. That coverage has fed into the perception that he's more interested in being president in 2016 than governor today, Ronan said.

It’s also helped him become a national figure, which Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said has hurt the governor. He said people now realize he is viable, leading to criticism.

“If he was not viable, he wouldn’t be under these attacks,” said Levinson, a Republican. He added that more favorable reporting would help Christie bounce back.

Levinson wasn’t alone in thinking the media is a big challenge for Christie.

“The media is treating him like a presidential candidate, and he doesn’t have a campaign to push back on some of these negative stories,” said Katie Packer Gage, a Washington, D.C., political consultant who served as deputy campaign manager of the Romney for President campaign in 2012.

A request for comment from the Governor’s Office on the Rutgers-Eagleton poll was not returned.

The poll showed that even Christie’s base is lukewarm about his potential presidency, with 58 percent of Republican respondents saying the governor has the right “look” to be president. That’s just 8 points higher than their percentage for Clinton.

Gage said Christie doesn’t necessarily have to remedy his image to look more presidential. She said his campaign message, if he decides to mount a campaign, will ultimately be what matters.

“He will have a campaign, and that’s what he’ll take to voters,” she said.

The poll did offer a potential strength that Christie can build on. He scored well in the experience category of the poll, with 62 percent of Republicans, half of independents and three in 10 Democrats feeling the governor had enough experience to be president. Koning said emphasizing his experience and focusing on governing his state could help Christie bounce back with New Jersey voters.

On Nov. 5, 2013, Christie was re-elected governor by a 61 percent to 39 percent landslide. His victory speech was broadcast nationally. His image graced the covers of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today the following day. And The New York Times said the victory “vaulted him to the front ranks of Republican presidential contenders.”

A lot has changed in 15 months. Bridgegate, questions over receiving gifts and issues at home have hurt the governor. Christie’s approval rating in New Jersey is at an all-time-low of 37 percent, down seven points in two months, according to a separate Rutgers-Eagleton poll released this month. Both The New York Times and Washington Post ran front-page stories Friday on Christie losing in-state donors to Jeb Bush.

But a lot can change in 11 months. That’s when the Iowa Caucuses — the first presidential nominating contest — take place.

“It’s much too early,” former Republican Gov. Tom Kean said before an event at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club earlier this month. “Everybody talks about it. Press talks about it. People in politics talk about it. But it means nothing. Sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Contact Christian Hetrick:

609-272-7215

More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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