ABC News’ Shushannah Walshe and Whitney Lloyd report:
MARION, Iowa – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie returned to Iowa for the first time in two years, launching what looked like his campaign before the campaign in the state that gets the first crack at sizing up political candidates.
He insisted he has made no decision about his political future and that although he appreciated the rousing reception it wouldn’t factor into his decision to run for president.
“The decision to seek the presidency or not is such a deeply personal one,” Christie told reporters. “While it’s wonderful to get as much encouragement as I got inside here and in other places in Iowa, to consider running I’ve said the same thing to everyone: I’ll decide at some point whether I’m going to or not, but that’s a really personal decision.”
He stopped at M.J.’s diner here and was greeted by a standing-room-only crowd of Iowans and reporters. Voters clamored to shake his hand, get an autograph, or pose for a photograph.
Introducing himself as “Chris” to some of the patrons, he told them he was “happy to be back.” Another woman shook his hand and told him she was thrilled to “meet the next president.”
A teenager asked Christie to sign a baseball and eagerly told him, “I will be 18 and a half in 2016 and you’ll get my vote.” Christie thanked him, before taking a “selfie” with the boy.
Afterwards, Christie spoke to reporters, but stayed clear of the big issues, although when asked by a voter about the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case he said he “supports” the decision. The ruling said for-profit businesses can opt out of the Obamacare requirement to provide contraceptives in their health plans if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.
When asked about his views on the current immigration debate, he answered, “First off, I’m not going to discuss a complicated issue like immigration in a parking lot here in Marion.”
He added that it “deserves a much deeper and thoughtful conversation” and blamed both parties for inaction on the issue.
When asked about the current border crisis he said he has “great empathy for that situation, but the administration has done an awful job of securing the border.”
“I don’t want to participate in encouraging this,” Christie answered when asked about if his state could possibly house some of the children affected. “But, we are an empathetic people.”
On the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, he stayed vague, but said the president “has not spoken up loudly, firmly, and clearly for Israel.”
When asked what the next president must do to get the nation “back on track” he again demurred, laughing and calling the question “too broad” and “ridiculous.”
Christie came to Iowa for a day of fundraisers with politicos and every day Iowans. As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie makes stops like these all over country, but his return to Iowa and what could be a testing of the 2016 waters may have given this trip greater significance, as well as scrutiny.
He attended a high-dollar breakfast fundraiser in the morning for the Republican Governors Association. About 40 donors at the event in a Des Moines suburb paid between $25,000 and $100,000 a head. He then traveled to Cedar Rapids for a fundraiser with Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, followed by the campaign-style meet-and-greet in Marion that Iowa voters are used to every four years. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is running for re-election, was by his side the entire day, telling ABC News he enjoyed the early attention.
“I encourage people to come early and often and to spend a lot of time here,” Branstad said, noting it’s good for the state and its economy.
A new poll out today from NBC News/Marist showed 33 percent of Republicans in Iowa view Christie negatively, while 50 percent view him favorably.
In March, Christie told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer, “I think they love me in Iowa too,” and it certainly seemed true today, although several voters told ABC News they just came to size up the possible contender.
Christie was asked if the new poll means he is still loved as he said and he cited the third who viewed him negatively quipping,”Only a third? That’s pretty good, man. I’ll take it,.” He noted that every time he comes to Iowa he gets a “great sense of affection and respect from folks here, but that doesn’t mean you are going to be universally loved.”
Christie was also asked about the ongoing sniping between two of his possible 2016 GOP rivals: Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. He said he didn’t know if the scuffle was healthy, but he would stay out of it.
“As one of the national leaders of the party, I don’t have a black-and-white striped shirt on to play referee,” he said. “It’s not my job.”
This evening, he will headline a low-dollar fundraiser at fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa. Titled, “An Evening at the Fair,” the $25 entrance fee allows more Iowans the opportunity to attend, sizing up Christie in person, as they are accustomed to doing.