Do They Really 'Love' Chris Christie In Iowa?

Gov. Christie is headed to Iowa, but he's not running for president just yet.

July 17, 2014, 11:14 AM
PHOTO: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting, March 13, 2014, at the YMCA of Burlington County, in Mount Laurel, N.J.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at a town hall meeting, March 13, 2014, at the YMCA of Burlington County, in Mount Laurel, N.J.
Matt Rourke/AP Photo

— -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is visiting Iowa today--a place where he has said his popularity hasn't taken a hit from the George Washington Bridge scandal.

"They love me in Iowa," Christie said in an interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer just a few months ago.

Diane Sawyer's Exclusive Interview With Chris Christie

The governor and potential 2016 presidential candidate, who is also the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will be appearing at a slew of fundraisers for Republicans, including Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Christie's itinerary is focused on other candidates, but his trip raises questions about his own chances in the important early nominating state and beyond, should he decide to run for president. Here are five questions that confront the New Jersey governor today:

1. Does the scandal still matter?

Chief among Christie's concerns is the Fort Lee, New Jersey, lane closure scandal, which he said would have no impact on his political future.

Christie's Bridge Scandal: From Jokes to Contrition

But three separate investigations into the affair are still in progress, and any revelations directly tying Christie to the closures would certainly be damning, according to Republican activists and observers in Iowa.

"It's not a weight around his neck," said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the state Republican Party and political blogger. "If there's some hard concrete thing that ties him directly to it, that would hurt him."

2. How do his gubernatorial bona fides stack up against other potential 2016ers?

Christie isn't the only governor on the Republican presidential shortlist with a record to sell. Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker wrested collective bargaining from public sector unions; under Gov. John Kasich, Ohio has created roughly 240,000 new jobs since 2011.

In New Jersey, Christie is taking heat for the new state budget that shorts the state's pension system by $1.57 billion to cover revenue shortfalls, a pension system the governor promised to fix in his first term.

"You need to be able to say, 'Look, I've done this in my state,'" Robinson said. "He needs to show a record of straightening out fiscal problems."

Still, Christie's Republican leadership of solidly Democratic New Jersey doesn't go unnoticed, says Doug Gross, a former chief of staff for Branstad.

"I don't think people forget about the fact that Chris Christie is in a highly blue state," Gross said.

3. Do Hawkeye state voters think he has a winning personality?

Christie, who has been criticized for his leadership, told ABC News in March that people appreciate his blunt persona.

"I am who I am," Christie, 51, said. "At core, I am a passionate, loving, caring, direct, truth-teller. And for some people, they love it."

Some claim that his persona shaped the office climate that led to the lane closures, which aides arranged as political retribution against a mayor who didn't support Christie's re-election bid.

"Whether he's guilty or knew of it, he looked and sounded like a bully," said Jim Kirkpatrick, a former Fayette County GOP chair with 30 years in Iowa politics.

Christie has rejected such a characterization, most recently to CNBC Wednesday.

"So the point is, someone went rogue," Christie said of his aides. "I am ultimately accountable for it, but don't give me this garbage and he created an atmosphere."

On the trail, the challenge would be twofold, Republicans say: Christie would need to play up his style while minimizing any negative characterizations.

"If people see him as a bully, they won't want him, but if they see him as a leader they will." Gross, the former chief of staff for Iowa Gov. Branstad, said. said.

Another position is that Christie could shine in the glad-handing, stump-heavy environment of Iowa primary politics.

"Our process and format was made for a talent like Chris Christie," former Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said.

4. Is Christie too moderate to play in Iowa? (Should he even compete there?)

Activists and observers are divided on Christie's appeal in Iowa, where more tea party-oriented members of the GOP pack like Wisconsin’s Gov. Walker and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., enjoy support.

"There's no clamor for Christie to get in with the grassroots," Kirkpatrick, the former Fayette County GOP chair, said.

Christie, who has been characterized as a centrist, would have to tap into the mainstream Republican vein of the state party, and excite moderate Republicans enough to spark caucus participation.

One maneuver in the northeastern Republican presidential playbook calls for staying out of Iowa, and spending time and resources campaigning in other early primary states like South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Unsurprisingly, the move, which was employed by both former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, is unpopular with Iowans, regardless of their feelings on Christie.

"Anyone who wants to run for president, a known or unknown, has to come to Iowa," Steve Scheffler of the Iowa Christian Alliance said.

5. Is Christie really ready for a presidential run?

While Christie has said that he plans to wait until 2015 to decide on a White House bid, the rest of the pack have wasted little time jockeying for position.

Paul, who recently hired top New Hampshire and Iowa strategists to his Rand PAC, has spent the past month clarifying his foreign policy views and launching broadsides at Texas Gov. Rick Perry on immigration. Christie, on the other hand, has repeatedly refused to weigh in on certain national political issues in the past week, and told CNBC Wednesday that doing so would be "immature."

"The fact is, if and when there's a time that comes that I need to be telling people in this country what my view is on those issues, I will," Christie said. "But until that time, I think it's quite frankly immature to be expressing a lot of those opinions."

But Christie can't have it both ways by coming to Iowa and sidestepping national policy questions, Kirkpatrick said.

"Regardless of whether someone has made up their mind or not, when you get asked about national issues, you should be prepared to answer them," he said. "Others answer questions when they come to the Hawkeye State. Why should Christie think he's above that?"

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