NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is entering the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest early next week in a far different position than he was in four years ago. At that time, many prominent Republicans were urging him to challenge President Barack Obama and he declined, saying he wasn't ready.

This time, Christie is battered and bruised following a political scandal at home and will not be a potential front-runner when he joins a field of more than a dozen major GOP candidates. Instead, he is trying to emerge from a pack of senators, governors, businesspeople and others, with more people expected to join in coming weeks.

He planned to announce his bid Tuesday at his old high school, several people familiar with his plans told The Associated Press.

During his "Ask the Governor" radio show Thursday evening, Christie insisted the reports were premature, saying: "There's been absolutely no final decision made by me." Still, Christie stopped short of denying that an announcement was planned for next week at Livingston High School, which he graduated from in 1980.

"I can't deny that because I haven't made a decision. Once I make a decision, then I'll decide how I want to do it," he said, adding, "Let's everybody remain calm."

The people familiar with Christie's plans spoke to the AP on Thursday on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to pre-empt Christie's announcement. His plans were first reported by WNYC radio in New York.

The Republican leader of a Democratic stronghold has been laying the groundwork for a White House run for months, traveling to early-voting states, delivering policy speeches, and raising money for two political action committees.

"I think it's great timing," said Leighton Lord, a friend of Christie since college who has been serving as his informal liaison in the early-voting state of South Carolina. "The field is still very unsettled and I think a lot of people are still looking for someone they want to support."

Christie plans to make his announcement in the gymnasium of Livingston High School in the leafy suburban town where he grew up, about 30 miles west of New York City. He served as class president at the school for three years.

After the announcement, Christie is scheduled to head to New Hampshire, where he will hold a town hall meeting in Sandown on Tuesday evening and plans to remain in the state through July 4, according to a person with direct knowledge of the plan.

The decision underscores the importance for Christie of doing well in New Hampshire, which holds the party's first primary and has historically welcomed moderate candidates who visit often.

The governor has already spent significant time in the state in recent weeks, holding a series of well-received town hall meetings and delivering policy speeches. But he remains a tough sell for many conservatives nationally.

Ever confident in his skills as a campaigner, Christie has played up his brash persona during the weeks leading up to the launch. At the same time, Christie has stressed his ability to work with Democrats, making the case that he can expand his party's support by appealing to the female and minority voters Republicans may need in greater numbers to win the White House.

Christie's reputation, however, was badly damaged by the actions of several top former aides charged by federal prosecutors with closing access to a busy bridge connecting New Jersey and New York to punish a Democratic mayor who didn't endorse Christie's re-election in 2013. From the outset, Christie has denied any knowledge of his aides' actions and no evidence has emerged contradicting him. But the trial of the indicted aides could take months, an unwelcome distraction as Christie campaigns.

Christie is likely to be one of four governors in the 2016 race, joining Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, who announced his candidacy this week, and expected candidates Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio. He dismissed the strategy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to lock up donors and popular support early, noting the large number of candidates is "testimony to the fact that Jeb Bush's strategy failed."

Christie has been saying for weeks that he intended to make a decision by the end of the month but wanted to wait until the state budget had been completed. He's expected to mark the occasion at a statehouse news conference Friday morning after using his line-item veto to slash spending from a budget passed by the Democratic state legislature Thursday evening.

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