Chris Christie, Iowa bound, recovers some presidential mojo

Gov. Chris Christie travels Thursday to Iowa, the first caucus state in 2016, to greet voters and raise money for fellow Republicans. Despite the woes of Bridge-gate, GOP voters appear to be warming to him again, polls show.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, walks with Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, N.J., as they arrive at an event Monday, July 14, 2014, in Paulsboro, N.J.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie heads to Iowa Thursday to glad-hand voters and to continue raising record funds for fellow Republicans, the famously pugnacious pol is gearing up once again to join the presidential fray in earnest.

For the past six months, of course, Governor Christie has seen his once-front-running bid for the 2016 Republican nomination dogged by Bridge-gate, three federal investigations, and a state in financial turmoil.

But his poll numbers aren’t too bad, even in New Jersey, and he’s been shattering fundraising records all year in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association. In June, Christie even appeared on "The Tonight Show" in portly pants and a light blue polo shirt to poke fun of himself, doing an “evolution of dad dancing” spoof with host Jimmy Fallon, who even mocked the governor's Bridge-gate troubles in a video that went viral.

Indeed, despite all Christie's troubles, voters are warming again to his tell-it-like-it-is political style, and his political team is poised to start showcasing it again.

“I think he’s back,” says Matt Hale, professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “Not all the way, but I think Chris Christie certainly turned the corner on the whole setback with Bridge-gate.”

“I don’t think he’s out of the woods -- there’s still the federal investigations, and obviously, if the feds come up with indictments or more subpoenas and all that, he’s right back where he began,” Professor Hale continues. “But Democrats in New Jersey haven’t been able to make anything stick."

In January, Christie administration officials ordered the closure of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge, causing a traffic nightmare in Fort Lee, N.J. The move was an apparent political payback against the borough's Democratic mayor, who would not endorse Christie for reelection. The US Attorney in New Jersey is investigating the affair – as well as a few other of the governor's strong-arm tactics – to see if any laws were broken.

As Christi heads to Iowa for a three-city, three-fundraiser tour, observers say he is beginning to regain the spring in his step and the tartness in his tongue, doing what he does best: connecting with voters in town hall meetings, local diners, and other Main Street venues.

On Thursday morning, he will host an exclusive $25,000-a-pop fundraiser for Republican governors – which he’s been successfully doing all year. But in the evening, for the first time in a long while, he’ll mix with the hoi polloi, attending an event at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport that is open to the public for a mere $25.

After Bridge-gate, Christie’s popular rough-and-tumble style began to be seen as that of a bully rather than of a straight-talker, and the governor turned his rhetoric down – until now.

“The narrative of Chris Christie being a bully is, I think, something that probably isn’t going to play particularly well in Iowa, or indeed play well elsewhere,” says Hale.

Indeed, 54 percent of Iowa Republicans view the New Jersey governor favorably, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in June. He’s even been gaining in head-to-head survey matchups with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who many see as the likely Democratic nominee.

After going to Iowa, site of America’s first presidential caucus, Christie will head to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, for the second time in recent weeks.

In the Granite State, the New Jersey governor actually leads a crowded GOP field of likely candidates, the first choice for 19 percent of likely Republican primary voters, and the second choice of 10 percent more, according to a July 10 survey by the University of New Hampshire.

Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky polled second with 14 percent, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush polled third with 11 percent. (Add Mitt Romney to the mix, however, and 39 percent of New Hampshire voters say they would prefer the 2012 Republican nominee.)

Even so, Christie also topped the list of candidates New Hampshire Republicans said they would never vote for, with 16 percent saying no way. Nine percent said they would never vote for Mr. Bush.

The Garden State governor, too, remains a pariah among tea party activists and many conservatives. A conservative judicial group spent $75,000 to blast Christie for his judicial appointments, buying two ads to coincide with the governor’s Iowa visit. His Republican rivals have been ratcheting up their criticisms of his economic record as well.

“But the problems that he’s having in New Jersey take a while to explain – the bond ratings, the shenanigans he does with the budget,” Hale says. “Meanwhile, Christie can say very clearly and directly, ‘I didn’t raise taxes, I fought the Democrats against tax increases.’ ”

New Jersey saw its bond rating drop in May, making it among the most risky for banks to provide short-term loans. And Christie recently closed his state’s $1.7 billion budget gap by using scheduled payments to the public-worker pension fund  – a book-balancing shift he had railed against as a candidate five years ago.

Yet even New Jersey voters may be tiring of the controversies and warming to their once-wildly-popular governor, who was reelected in a landslide last year. Half still approve of how Christie is handling his job, and 45 percent have a favorable view of him, versus 38 who disapprove.  

On Wednesday afternoon, during a hedge-fund conference in Manhattan, the governor was asked about New Jersey’s sketchy finances. In reply, Christie parried aggressively, emphasizing his tax-fighting bonafides.

“Like I’m the guy at the gate trying to keep the barbarians away, you know, from increasing taxes even more,” he said to an audience at Delivering Alpha, a financial conference sponsored by CNBC. “...Because they have to continue to feed the beast, of their patrons in the public-sector unions.”

It’s a brash message that he hopes will resonate with conservative primary voters, as he battles his more conservative rivals.

“So, if you're dealing in a blue state like New Jersey – it’s a high-cost, high-tax state – and you’ve been able to keep things stable for 4-1/2 years? With a Democratic legislature that‘s trying to increase taxes all the time? I’m fairly content with what I’ve been able to do.”

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