It was lunchtime, a month before voting starts in the nation's first presidential caucuses. Chris Christie was standing in front of a crowd of about 75 mostly senior citizens in Marshalltown, Iowa. They might fairly have wondered what the New Jersey governor was doing here.
For months, Christie has been staking his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on New Hampshire, a state closer to his East Coast home and one where Christie's deviations from Republican orthodoxy on some issues (he favors redirecting the war on drugs to focus on treatment not jail and is less hostile to gay rights than some of his presidential competitors) and his hawkish stand on federal spending (no tax hikes, entitlement cuts) likely will draw a sympathetic audience.
According to a tally maintained by New England Cable News, Christie has made more stops in the Granite State than any candidate currently active in the presidential race. According to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker, Christie has made fewer stops in Iowa than all but three of his Republican competitors.
So why this week did Christie start to increase his footprint in a state where a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll earlier this month showed him lagging sixth in the Republican field with the support of just 3 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers?
“I think Chris Christie is quietly making more moves in Iowa than anyone has detected,” Nicolle Wallace, a long-time Republican strategist and White House communications director for former President George W. Bush, said Wednesday on the Bloomberg Politics television show With All Due Respect. “We talk about his strength in New Hampshire, we talked at the beginning of the week how he's tailor-made for that state, but I think I'm going to be watching to see if he's quietly building up some sort of respectable outcome for himself in Iowa.”
Even as the Christie camp continues to see New Hampshire as friendlier turf for a Northeastern governor from the establishment wing of his party with a reputation for blunt talk, one adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss operations, said the campaign—while tempering its expectations—has committed to competing in Iowa.
“I don't want to make predictions that are unattainable,” Christie told the group at Marshalltown's Legends Sports Grille, one of his stops on a two-day year-end swing through the eastern end of the state. “What I need to do in Iowa and New Hampshire is to do well in both states. Because the field is so big that if you don't do well in both places, you're going to have a hard time staying in this race.”
Iowa, which will hold its caucuses Feb. 1, hosts the first balloting of the presidential campaign season; New Hampshire will hold the nation's first primary eight days later. Both are considered key to winnowing a Republican field that started with 17 hopefuls and dropped to 12 Tuesday when former New York Governor George Pataki said he was suspending his campaign.
Barbara Hovland, chairwoman of the Cerro Gordo County Republican Party and a Christie backer, said the governor's best hope lies in the two-thirds of caucus-goers who told the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll they still have not firmly committed to a candidate.
“I don't think he's just playing defense here,” Hovland said in an interview. “If he spends the next two weeks here he can cover a lot of ground—he can go into a lot of coffee shops and hold a lot of town halls. If he wants to do it he certainly has enough time.”
Hovland thinks there's plenty of reason for Christie to make the investment. “I don't think everything depends on Iowa, but you do need a strong top three or five showing,” she said. Pointing to former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum's surprise win in the 2012 caucuses over the much more high-octane campaign of eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Hovland argued that Christie's strength is the kind of grassroots politicking that works well in Iowa. While other candidates enjoy mass appeal, the depths of that support may not be deep enough come Feb. 1, she said.
“Donald Trump pulls thousands of people at his events but the question is whether those people are going to caucus for him, or do they just want to take a picture and say they were there? There's still plenty of time.”
But there's another political precedent that might prove a cautionary tale for Christie. In 2008, another northeastener—like Christie, a former federal prosecutor with a reputation for straight talk—made a similar last-minute feint to Iowa after essentially ignoring the state. For former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it proved to be a waste of time and resources: He finished in the back of the pack with less than 4 percent of the vote, a loss that portended an early end to his once-promising campaign. Two ex-Giuliani advisers who worked on that campaign, Michael DuHaime and Maria Comella, are now top aides to Christie.
But Christie also isn't burdened with high expectations Giuliani was. The mayor's early defeats were all the more devastating because he had led in national polls for the early stages of that race, based largely on his leadership of the city following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center. Christie, on the other hand, is making a comeback bid after the scandal over a politically induced traffic jam by some of his aides nearly derailed the governor's once-promising national ambitions.
As his campaign feels a shot of wind in New Hampshire, Christie used the last week of the year to test whether he can detect a similar opportunity in Iowa before the January rush of candidates.
In Iowa, Christie talked tough on budgets and terrorism and argued that the U.S. can't afford another senator in the White House. The place is like grade school, he said: members show up when told and just answer yes or no. No leadership required, he said. It was a remark that managed to hit rivals within his own party—U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul—while also zinging President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, both also Senate veterans.
Christie and Rubio trod much of the same ground as they made swings this week in eastern Iowa. Both were forced to cancel events on Monday as the storm dumped snow and even weather-hardened Midwesterners were daunted slippery roads and gusting winds. Along the way, the two presidential rivals traded shots over who has a spottier attendance record at work.
Along with the event Wednesday at Legends Sports Grille, Christie held an earlier town hall in a Waterloo Café. Staffers gloated that 400 people had RSVPed to attend a town hall at a pub in Waukee that held 250. He also held a meet-and-greet in Iowa City.
Referring to his decision not to run four years ago and scandals that have more recently kept him in front pages, Christie compared opponents to shiny new pickup trucks that get new owners excited only to bog down the first time they encounter mud.
“The only thing you're thinking at that moment is: damn, where's my old truck?” Christie said. “It was a little dinged up and had a little scratches but man that truck always got me out of the mud. I am the old truck in this race everybody.”