MARION and DAVENPORT – Anyone who tells you Chris Christie’s presidential aspirations are in trouble might think differently if they saw how Iowa Republicans reacted to the New Jersey governor on Thursday.
Locals jam packed a Cedar Rapids-area restaurant in the mid-afternoon just for the chance to shake Christie’s hand. Then he wowed a crowd of 300 in Davenport with a motivational speech that had attendees buzzing.
“He sort of rallied the troops for Governor Branstad, which he did a fantastic job of,” said Jeanita McNulty, who lives in rural Scott County. “And then, I think he was here to plant a seed. He talked about what he had done working with the other party and so I think he did plant that seed and so I think he was here for those two things and did a good job with both of them.”
Governor Christie’s reputation has been damaged during the past year due to the Bridgegate scandal, but he remains a GOP star. That was evidenced by the media horde that followed him throughout the day. Around 40 reporters from across the state and the country were on the scene in both Marion and Davenport.
Bridgegate aside, some of Christie’s stances are not conservative enough for many Iowa Republican caucusgoers. However, the same could be said of Mitt Romney, who came within three-dozen votes of winning the 2012 Iowa Caucus. And Chris Christie connects with an audience much better than Romney.
Also, a lot of Iowans seem willing to take Christie at his word regarding the Bridgegate issue.
“You know, if Governor Christie says he didn’t know anything about that, I take him at his word and believe what he says,” said Scott County GOP Chair Judy Davidson. “I think Iowa voters are smart. Iowans don’t base their vote on a potential scandal. They base it on the issues, talking to the candidates and meeting with them, more than once. We’re kind of spoiled.”
Even Jamie Johnson, a social conservative who worked for Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign and publicly declared he would not support Romney in the general election, heaped praise on Christie’s Davenport speech.
“He blended personal stories with an overarching theme of Republican victory in every election and it resonated very, very well on these attendees. 300 people tonight left here very impressed with Chris Christie,” Johnson said.
During the stop in Marion, a reporter asked Christie about a new poll that shows 1/3 of Iowa Republicans disapproving of Christie. The New Jersey governor dismissed the findings, in his usual, inimitable style.
“Only a third? That’s not bad. I’ll take it,” Christie replied. “Every time I come here to Iowa I get a great sense of affection and respect, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be universally loved. And if you want to be universally loved in this business, then you’re the absolute poster boy for being ineffective.”
Christie’s presence at various events in Iowa Thursday resulted in significant dollars being raised for the Republican Governors Association, Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and the Branstad/Reynolds campaign. The Davenport event, which was a Branstad fundraiser, brought in more than six figures, even though tickets were only $25 apiece.
“We’ve been to these events here many times over the years and this was about as big a crowd as we’ve ever had here,” said longtime Scott County activist Jim Davis.
County Chairperson Judy Davidson said there was a late rush of ticket sales once more people found out about the event. The Scott County GOP office received calls Thursday morning from folks asking if they could pay at the door.
“People were excited about coming to hear him,” Davidson said.
Christie spent the first part of his speech in Davenport praising Governor Branstad and the other Iowa Republicans on the ticket.
“It’s kind of funny to stand up here and hear Governor Terry Branstad say that I was an inspiration for him to run for governor,” Christie said. “This is a legend. This is a guy who has set the example for governors all across the country in both parties, and not just because he initially served four terms and did an extraordinary job. But to me, the thing that makes his public service so extraordinary is the example he has set the last four years.”
The second half was the part a lot of attendees will remember the most. Almost like a football coach delivering a pregame speech before a playoff game, Chris Christie encouraged the GOP activists in attendance to do everything they can in the next 110 days to ensure they don’t wake up disappointed on November 5.
“Maybe the clock radio wakes up and your hear the news about the slim losses by Republicans in Iowa. Do you want to lay there and think to yourself, “If I’d only done a little bit more? If I’d only put aside some of my personal pursuits for that 110 days and put my state first, put my country first. Just for 110 days,” Christie said.
Only briefly did Chris Christie discuss presidential politics during his Davenport appearance. Toward the end of his speech, he mentioned having a Republican-led Congress would force the president of this country to finally be a leader and not be “a bystander in the Oval Office”.
Two minutes later, he briefly dangled the 2016 carrot in front of the audience.
“When we get done on November 4, 2014, we will all turn our eyes toward 2016 and taking our country back, but first things first everybody,” Christie said to applause from the crowd.
So, do Iowans love Christie, as he famously claimed in an interview several months ago? Some, apparently.
“You have these folks from the press follow me around asking me, ‘Do people in Iowa love you, governor?’” There was a big cheer from the audience, indicating many in attendance do.
“I had never met him before but I’d seen him on TV so much and so often,” said Jim Davis. “I’m sure the press wanted to grill him about the problem with the George Washington Bridge and traffic and so forth, but I think he’s an outstanding governor and I think he could be an outstanding candidate for president of the United States.”
That was not an official endorsement, by the way. However, it was a sign that many Iowa activists are still very open to the idea of a Chris Christie candidacy for the nation’s highest office.
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