SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie officially took the reins of the Republican Governors Association today, becoming the chairman at the group's annual conference where he joked at a news conference that he was "a bit unprepared" to comment on whether governors should be the party's standard bearer in 2016.
The presidential election "is a long, long way away," he said, adding that he is "not looking to start speculating about other campaigns. We have 2014 to deal with."
Christie, 51, also feigned shock at the intense interest in the next presidential campaign. And while he is "honored" by his colleague's "confidence" in him, he declined to entertain any questions about his possible presidential aspirations.
"I think if any one of us in our individual capacity and many of us as leaders of this organization, on the executive committee, start thinking about 2016 at our own peril, but worse at the peril of our colleagues," Christie said. "So I have to speak for myself and my focus is raising the funds that are necessary to able to get the stories of these governors out to the citizens of their state and to then move forward from there to help them by getting out on the ground and campaigning."
But Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina dove right into the issue today, saying she "always prefers governors over others" and thinks the party's next presidential nominee should come from one of the country's state houses.
"I'm a huge fan of governors because it's not about talk, it's about what we they do," Haley said. "What I always think is important are results, and is it really possible for people out of D.C to prove results when they can't even stay open?"
Twenty-six of the country's 30 GOP governors are meeting here this week at the Phoenician resort with donors, party supporters and Republican bigwigs to strategize on policy and how to elect and defend GOP candidates and incumbent governors next year. Thirty-six of the 50 governors are up for election in 2014.
Christie said that as he heads the RGA, his "sole focus over the course of the next 11 months" will be to work to re-elect and elect Republican governors. But it also gives him a platform to spend time in crucial early voting states and make relationships with big donors he would need if he does decide to run for president.
He later made it clear to say his "first and foremost job is being the governor of New Jersey and I will continue to make that my priority," balancing that with the demands of this new position.
One thing Christie and all of the governors here are doing is trying to distinguish themselves from the tarnished brand of Washington, but he said the problem does not just lie with Democrats or Republicans and "we are critiquing everybody."
"The fact is these folks have a responsibility to run the government; that's what they were sent here to do," Christie said. "And I think the frustration that many of us feel is that they are a headwind rather than a tailwind and that is not productive for the citizens we are all privileged to represent."
Christie added at the news conference, which also featured Florida's Rick Scott and Indiana's Mike Pence, that "his view" has "always been when a Republican deserves criticism, he or she gets it. When a Democrat deserves criticism, he or she gets it. When they deserve praise, they get it, too, but they get it honestly and directly."
When Gov. Haley was asked about the issue of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, something some Republican governors have decided to embrace despite the criticism from some conservatives who might be critical during a GOP presidential primary, she said it will "certainly" be an issue in her state come 2016. But it won't be the "sole issue," she said.
Haley decided against expanding Medicaid, but other governors including Christie and John Kasich of Ohio decided to expand it in their state. South Carolina holds the all important "first in the South" primary during the presidential nomination process.
"What the people of South Carolina want is someone who makes good decisions, who is measured, who listens to them," Haley said. "I don't think that the people of South Carolina will make a decision on one issue. The people of South Carolina look at all the issues and they look at who will be the best person who will fight. That's what the people of South Carolina look for. They want a fighter."