ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- In Middletown, N.J., for town hall No. 110, an audience member rose to ask Gov. Chris Christie how well his exercise program is working.
"You're looking good," the woman said.
Two weeks later in Long Hill, at No. 111, a man told the governor he considers himself among the "silent majority" in the state who support Christie no matter what.
And then a week after that, the audience of the governor's 112th town hall erupted into standing applause when Christie suggested to one woman that she elect a new president.
For a leader with plummeting poll numbers because of scandal, Christie has enjoyed a warm welcome back to the town hall forum, a hallmark of his governorship that went on an eight-month hiatus while he campaigned for re-election.
He re-emerged in deeply supportive areas and fielded soft, sometimes parochial questions from audiences that were not just supportive, but at times rallying. And Christie slid into a comfort zone, playing both the sympathetic leader and the dispenser of hard truths — a Chris Christie Lite compared with the pugnacious, finger-wagging governor of past town halls.
But when Christie traveled to a town hall in Mount Laurel, a town that gave him 65 percent of its vote last year but has shown it is willing to vote Democratic, his warm welcome went cold, at least for a few minutes. Half a dozen hecklers interrupted questions, shouting at Christie for hiring "crooks" and "liars" and for what they say has been the unfair distribution of Superstorm Sandy aid.
The crowd, which also featured two groups of silent protesters holding signs against fracking, booed when the hecklers shouted and cheered when they were escorted away.
At previous town halls, "The rooms were packed with the Christie adoration club, and any time somebody got up they'd get shouted out of the room," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. "What I find interesting was that the audience reaction (on Thursday) was mixed, and we have not seen that before."
That may embolden other groups to raise their voices at future town halls, Murray said. Christie is scheduled to appear next week in South River, where he won re-election by a much slimmer margin — 58 percent — than he did in the locations for the previous four town halls.
"He's getting close to Democratic territory now," Murray said.
A recurring criticism of Christie has been that he cherry-picks his audience and steers away from areas where he may be more apt to face criticism and hard questions. Of his 113 town halls, Christie has bypassed three of the state's four largest cities, which lean heavily Democratic.
Christie's most recent pattern of hosting town halls in suburban, Republican strongholds prompted the small group of protesters to show up Thursday.
"Mount Laurel is a mostly Republican town. A hard-hitting question's not going to come from the audience," said Kailee Whiting, who organized the group of hecklers. "Nobody's going to ask about bridgegate. Nobody's going to ask about Sandy money allocation."
That has been mostly true. Through four town halls since the George Washington Bridge scandal erupted, no one has asked about it. And with the exception of one audience member in Middletown who asked why the administration quietly fired one of its Sandy recovery contractors, the Sandy-related questions have been specific and innocuous.
The Christie administration denies assertions of cherry-picking, pointing to the handful of town halls held in urban and Democratic areas and saying that the governor goes to locations where there are pressing, timely issues. Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovitch Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville, noted that Christie was re-elected by 22 percentage points, the most lopsided win in New Jersey in nearly 25 years.
But other political observers say Christie's reintroduction to the public after the bridge scandal broke has been a textbook example of crisis-mode public relations: Say you're sorry, then find a friendly audience to rehabilitate your image.
"The real purpose right now is to try to move beyond these things, to move (the press) in particular in another direction," said David P. Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. "This is what (town halls) are all about. They're about being able to create an environment where you're reaching out to the public, but more important, you're getting the press that says you're reaching out to the public."
The town hall meeting predates the Constitution, but Christie has put a personal touch on the forum, making it a sometimes raucous roadshow that secured his legend as a straight-shooting non-politician who doesn't bend his beliefs.
Web videos went viral in 2010 when he dressed down school teachers, and perhaps his most notable exchange was in 2012, when he called a military veteran an idiot.
None of that rough edge has been evident in the past month, but there was a flash of agitation Thursday when a man stood shouting at the governor over his use of federal Sandy money.
"Either sit down and be quiet or get out. One or the other. We're done with you," Christie said.
Some experts believe Christie is conscious of being viewed as a bully at a time when he is trying to appeal to a national audience. A recent Monmouth University poll showed Christie's job approval rating dropping 20 points in the last year. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll this week showed that "voters continue to experience more negative emotions toward Christie than they did" before the bridge scandal.
"He is overadjusting a little bit, probably being a little too kind for his own good, too non-Chris Christie for his own good," said Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and former fellow at Harvard University.
Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts
allowed that the town halls have mellowed, but not by design.
"You really haven't had a high level of acrimony at these town halls. It's just kind of the nature of what's on people's minds and what people are talking about," he said.
For Christie, the made-for-YouTube moments have gone from finger-wagging to kneeling down to a pigtailed girl ' s eye level to tell her he'll help her family moved back into their storm-wrecked home.
"It certainly wouldn't be the first time we see a carefully orchestrated town hall meeting, and it most certainly wouldn't be the last time," Scheufele said. "They are, after all, campaign events."