A group of leading Iowa Republicans left New Jersey on Tuesday without a firm commitment from Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider a presidential run. But speculation about the tough-talking Republican promises to live on with his pledge to help shape the debate in the leadoff caucus state with a July visit focused on education.
Seven influential GOP leaders made the unusual pilgrimage from Iowa to Drumthwacket, the official residence of New Jersey’s governor, hoping to draft Christie into the race.
“What typically happens in Iowa is, candidates come around and talk to a variety of people [about running]. We’ve all been through that. But we believe that it’s certainly appropriate to go out and recruit a candidate that you feel would make a really great candidate,” said Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa energy executive who made the trip.
Over a dinner of rib-eye steaks and sweet corn, Christie explained -- as he has often this year -- that he intended to see through his commitment to New Jersey voters and serve his full term.
He did share with the group that he’s accepted Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s invitation to attend his education summit in late July, a bipartisan gathering that will include Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The outreach to Christie should not necessarily be viewed as a signal of dissatisfaction with the party’s current field of presidential contenders, Rastetter said, adding that the group’s interest was first sparked last fall when Christie headlined a fundraiser for Branstad’s campaign, one of the largest such events in the state’s history. Having followed him closely, Rastetter said, they came away with the sense that he was uniquely suited to carry the party’s message in 2012.
“He is a guy that very clearly understands the issues facing the country ... and can deliver the message in a very common-sense, blunt, direct way that people get,” he said. “We really believed that he would make both a great presidential candidate and a great president. We came away last night feeling even stronger about that.”
Asked if he thought Christie left any wiggle room, Rastetter only repeated what the governor’s line: “He feels a responsibility to the people of New Jersey to deal with their problems, and he isn’t planning on running for president at this time.”
A survey of Iowa Republicans released Wednesday shows no clear front-runner in the race for the GOP nomination. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, found that Mitt Romney was the leading choice of regular Republican caucus-goers, at 21%. Sarah Palin, with nearly universal name recognition, tied for second place with Herman Cain, the former pizza chain executive and political newcomer who has shown surprising strength in the developing field.
Branstad recently urged fellow Republicans still on the sidelines to quickly engage, saying there was still time to begin courting the activists who will have the first say in the 2012 GOP race. Although Christie won’t be coming to Iowa as a candidate, he’ll be addressing the issue that helped catapult him to national prominence.
Now well into his second year as governor, he continues to campaign in the state for a slate of reform proposals aimed at fixing the state’s finances, but recent polling showed a dip in his approval rating among New Jersey voters.
Now he’s facing new criticism and charges of hypocrisy for using a new state police helicopter Tuesday to travel to his son’s baseball game and then to head to the governor’s mansion.
“The people of the state of New Jersey should not be required to pick up the tab so he can meet with Iowa donors,” Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. “He’s a governor who as U.S. attorney would rail against elected officials blurring the line. But this governor has selective memory and selective outrage.”