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New Jersey Gov. Christie nears 2016 spotlight

July 17, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie says his visit to Iowa this week is simply as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, but his high-profile swing through the site of the first Republican presidential nominating contest in 2016 is sure to send a message that he’s politically alive and well.

The outspoken New Jersey governor has been trying to re-establish himself on the national stage after a bridge scandal at home shook his reputation as a potential Republican front-runner for president and brought out political rivals who criticized him as a bully.

Christie is openly considering a presidential bid, but he told The Associated Press: “I’m not gearing up to run up for president. I’m gearing up to win as many governor’s races as I can this November, and then we’ll make decisions about running for president after that.”

With roughly 18 months to go before Iowa’s 2016 caucuses, the early visits by potential candidates have passed without much fanfare. That could change Thursday, with more than 50 reporters and news media representatives requesting credentials to cover Christie’s visit.

While he hasn’t been shy about seeking the spotlight as he has re-emerged in recent weeks, the governor has been unusually quiet about certain sensitive issues as he positions himself and lets other potential Republican candidates argue among themselves.

On the current crisis of thousands of Central American migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied and straining the response of border authorities, Christie has said: “I’m not going to get into all that. Again, that’s Washington’s job to figure these things out. It’s not my job to figure them out.”

And on the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, he said: “I’m not going to give opinions on that, I’m not the president. But what I can tell you is that a lot of what is happening there now is caused by a sense of America backing off of its commitments in that region.” He added that Obama has not spoken firmly and forcefully on Israel’s behalf.

It’s a contrast to the normally blunt-talking Christie, who held an exhaustive press conference after the bridge scandal erupted last year over questions of connections between his office and days of traffic jams at the foot of one of the world’s busiest bridges.

Investigations continue into whether the incident at the bridge between New Jersey and New York City was a case of political retribution, but Christie and his advisers believe the worst of his political troubles are behind him, in part because no evidence has come out that he was personally involved.

Still, the scandal rocked the governor’s self-styled reputation as a Republican managing to work with voters in a heavily Democratic state.

Now Christie arrives in Iowa on Thursday to raise money for other politicians while raising his personal profile, as the focus already turns toward who will be chosen in 2016 to replace President Barack Obama.

Christie’s recent return to the national stage has featured policy speeches, late-night television appearances and campaign stops in other key early voting states like New Hampshire.

While Christie’s supporters insist he’s as outspoken as ever, some observers see his relative silence on divisive issues as part of a larger strategy to avoid angering key constituencies like women and Latinos as he thinks about how to position himself in the crowded Republican field.

As 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney quickly learned, if he runs, Christie will have to balance courting voters who lean far to the right of those he’s used to while remaining competitive in the general election.

On one divisive issue, gay marriage, Christie appears to have gone with the national momentum toward acceptance. He vetoed a bill that would have allowed gay marriage in New Jersey, but then angered some conservatives this year by declining to appeal a court ruling that legalized it.

Last month, in his first major address to social conservatives, Christie declared his opposition to abortion, telling religious conservatives that “every life is a gift from God that’s precious and must be protected.”

Chip Felkel, a longtime South Carolina Republican operative who worked on former President George W. Bush’s two campaigns, said it was wise for Christie to take his time and avoid weighing in on issues that could come back to bite him.

“To a great extent, he’s avoiding addressing things he doesn’t think he has to in the context of, we presume at the moment, him gearing up to run for president,” said David Redlawsk, the director of the Rutgers Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, who has been following Christie for years.

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Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa; Steve Peoples in Nashville, Tennessee; and Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed.

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