Naturally, this has gotten him into some hot water this week in the Garden State.

“Choppergate” began Tuesday evening when the Newark Star -Ledger reported, within hours of the event, that Christie and his wife arrived in the 55-foot long helicopter just before the game started, landing on an adjacent football field. He then ambled over to a black state car with tinted windows that drove the first couple the 100 yards to the stands.

They stayed until the fifth inning, when they were driven back to the helicopter and off to the governor’s mansion in Princeton in time to meet with a group of GOP Iowa donors who want him to run in 2012.

The flights to the game and then to the mansion apparently cost more than $3,000. That, given Christie’s public image as an ethically upright budget-cutter in these difficult times, immediately had Democrats yelling “hypocrite.”

Turns out Christie has used the state police helicopter only 35 times in his 16 months in office, according to the state police, which is substantially less than recent predecessors, who flew in them hundreds of times a year — and were often roundly criticized for doing so. Former governor James McGreevey had the N.J. Democratic State Committee reimburse the state $18,000 for some of his trips.

Christie initially refused to reimburse the state for the rides. But a two-day firestorm of criticism from left and right proved overwhelming. A Star-Ledger online poll showed 67 percent of readers thought the chopper ride “inappropriate.”

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Christie, citing his “duty ... to focus on the real problems of the state” and not be distracted by a media circus, said he’d written a check for $2,251 and the New Jersey Republican Party had written another for $1,200 to cover the costs.

Christie told reporters he originally didn’t feel he needed to pay anything because the state police superintendent had told him the trips didn’t cost taxpayers anything — the pilots needed to be out flying the choppers as part of their training time.

That would have come as great news for state Democrats, since they might have been able to get that $18,000 back. It would have been tough news for former governor Jon Corzine, who perhaps wouldn’t have been badly injured in a state car crash a few years ago had he known that New Jersey provided a free helicopter to its governor for official and personal use — home to work, a weekend in the Hamptons, whatever.

The mega-wealthy Corzine avoided the helicopter problem by picking up the cost of a private helicopter when he needed one, a former Corzine aide told us. Or, the former aide said, Corzine had his campaign funds pay when it was a political trip. “Our understanding was that to do otherwise would be illegal.”

The aide noted that former Newark mayor Sharpe James was prosecuted by then-U.S. attorney Christie for using municipal credit cards to, among other things, go on foreign trips with girlfriends. If Christie were still a prosecutor, the aide quipped, “he would have indicted himself if he’d done this.”

In any event, in his now-famous meeting with the Iowans, Christie reportedly didn’t flatly rule out running in 2012. And he’s scheduled to speak in Iowa on education matters at the end of July.