Presidential contender Chris Christie has resisted demands to “smack” Donald Trump as the Republican party establishment panics over the billionaire celebrity’s seemingly unstoppable rise.

The New Jersey governor was among four mainstream candidates who crisscrossed New Hampshire on Wednesday, bracing for a primary poll that could be their last stand if, as polls suggest, the Iowa caucuses are dominated by Trump and hardline conservative Ted Cruz.

Between them, they challenged the abrasive billionaire’s credentials as a conservative, and as a credible leader given his unwillingness to lay out how he intended to achieve any of his sweeping policy ideas.

However, frustration is mounting amid fears that the Republican party could tear itself apart, yet only Jeb Bush has attacked Trump head on. Christie, hosting a town hall event in Derry, was confronted by a female US army veteran who asked: “When are you going to take the gloves off and start smacking him around? You don’t have much time.”

Often described as pugnacious, Christie elicited audience laughter by replying: “You know, I think it’s the first time in my political career that people have said to me you’re not aggressive enough.”

He went on: “Listen, you know when I will? When I think it makes sense to. I’m not in this to just beat Donald Trump. I’m in this to become president of the United States and I’m going to make certain decisions about when I want to say what I’m going to say.”

Christie also voiced Republican hopes that the opinion polls have been wrong all along. “Here’s the other thing: everyone is kind of obsessed with him. I don’t quite get it. Here’s what I don’t get about it: no one has voted yet. How many times have you people in New Hampshire turned the polls upside down?”

Christie recalled working for George W Bush in the 2000 presidential primary when the polls put him ahead of or level with Republican rival John McCain in New Hampshire. But come the results, McCain won by 18 percentage points. “Now I’m sure the people who were working for McCain thought that was going to happen but I can tell you, the news media didn’t think it was going to happen and the people working for Bush didn’t think it was going to happen.”

However, Christie could not resist at least a jab at Trump, who dominated media coverage again this week after gaining the backing of McCain’s former running mate Sarah Palin. “I tell everybody who goes to a Donald Trump event, “If you get to ask a question, just ask him ‘How?’” I don’t care which of the things he talks about just ask him, ‘How?’ See, I can answer ‘how?’ And I can answer ‘how?’ because I’ve done it … No one can say, ‘I don’t know how’. They can say, ‘I disagree with him’. But not, ‘He doesn’t know’. That’s the difference between a governor and Donald Trump. That’s the difference between a governor and Marco Rubio. That’s the difference between a governor and Ted Cruz.”

He added: “I’m going to keep making my pitch and I know there’s some of you out there, because plenty of people have come up to me just like you and said, ‘Come on, you’re the tough guy from Jersey, slug him.’ You know? You know what I am? I’m the winner from New Jersey.”

Trump and Cruz are running a close race in Iowa, where caucuses are held on 1 February, while polls show Trump with a significant lead in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on 9 February. Senior Republicans have been shaken by the populist rebellion within the party and fear long-term damage. Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, told the New York Times that he views Cruz as an extremist and said “nobody likes him”.

Some within the party are slowly resigning themselves to a Trump nomination, according to media reports, but others remain implacably opposed. The mainstream candidates’ reluctance to lock horns with the tycoon may be understandable given his apparent immunity to criticism.

Confronting Trump has certainly not worked well for Bush so far. His itinerary on Wednesday included a low-key event with two dozen military veterans at an American Legion hall in Manchester, where he was accompanied by former-candidate-turned-supporter Lindsey Graham.

“I try to avoid in these meetings to have a Trump therapy session,” Bush said. “So, here’s what I know to be true. The president of the United States needs to have a steady hand, needs to have leadership skills, needs to have a backbone and a heart and brain, and needs to stick with things. The world’s a dangerous place and the way you bring order to the world is the word of the president is meaningful … That does not require the unpredictability of the leading candidate. That would be chaotic. No one would know where we stand on anything because he doesn’t know where we stand.”

Asked about the endorsement by conservative firebrand Palin, Bush told the Guardian: “I admire her but Donald Trump’s not a conservative. He can get endorsements, but man, he’s been all over the map on positions and he’s not a conservative. We need a conservative to win the conservative party’s nomination.”

The establishment vote is split, so gaining an edge in New Hampshire is a matter of survival. Christie, the Florida senator Marco Rubio and Ohio governor John Kasich addressed the state’s house of representatives in Concord on Wednesday. Rubio carefully flattered his hosts, contrasting their sense of civic duty – they earn just $100 a year – with the government-industrial complex in Washington.

“One truth I know is that independence runs in your veins,” he said, speaking under a full-length portrait of George Washington in the oldest chamber in the US still in continuous legislative use. “‘Live free or die.’ That call to action inspires and echoes through the generations. If Washington encroaches on our states, we will forfeit much of what makes us different, and special, and unique from all the nations on the Earth.”

Kasich, reportedly enjoying a surge in the New Hampshire polls, also appealed to anti-Washington sentiment, telling the House: “I believe in running our country from the bottom up.”

Meanwhile, at his event in Derry that ran for two and a half hours, Christie condemned Congress’s vote last year to restrict bulk data collection, insisting that anti-terrorism agents should have access to phone records as long as they can gain a court order and work within the constitution. “This idea that we’ve somehow sacrificed civil liberties is insane,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that the debate over data encryption is complex and requires cooperation with the tech industry. “I think to go at this with a sledgehammer and just pass a law would put us in an anti-competitive position vis-a-vis the rest of the world and create other problems. But there have to be ways for us to be able to access this information. We cannot allow there to be dark corners of the internet where these people communicate and plot to kill people around the world and we have absolutely no way of figuring it out.”

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