Republican operatives and activists in the critical early states of Iowa and New Hampshire say the field in each state remain remarkably wide open, handing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a golden opportunity if he decides to pursue the GOP presidential nomination.
“Given the slow start to the campaign, even the newest entry to the race, [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry, has yet to spend a great deal of time in New Hampshire so a compelling figure like Governor Christie could make a big impact,” said Mike Dennehy, who directed Sen. John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns in the Granite State. “There is a sizable portion of elected officials and activists who have yet to sign on with a candidate but the time to influence them is rapidly closing because it doesn’t happen overnight.”
“There is still plenty of space for someone to get in,” said one senior party operative with close ties to Iowa. “Much of [former Minnesota governor Tim] Pawlenty’s [Iowa] team has not yet signed up with a new candidate... and at the activist level, affiliation remains very fluid.”
Polling conducted in each of the states bears out the openness of the race in each.
An American Research Group survey released last week showed Romney leading in Iowa with 21 percent followed by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann at 15 percent and Perry at 14 percent.
That result is all the more remarkable because Romney remains something short of totally committed to the Iowa caucuses. He skipped the Ames Straw Poll, which was won by Bachmann, and has concentrated far more of his time in New Hampshire in the 2012 campaign to date.
In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Romney is a clear frontrunner — an ARG poll put him at 30 percent with his nearest challenger in the low teens — but the state has a history of rewarding a challenge to the favorite (McCain in 2000 being the prime example).
Christie’s political inner circle is also larded with New Hampshire know-how — Bill Stepien was George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign manager in Granite State while Maria Comella was the state communications director in that race — which could, theoretically allow him to put an experienced team in place quickly.
Not everyone is convinced, however, that Christie still has the time to take advantage of what is a remarkably wide-open field in the two earliest voting states — particularly given the movement of places like Florida and South Carolina forward in the nominating process over the past week.
“The election in New Hampshire is just 100 days away,” said former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu (R). “There are still many strong, uncommitted activists, but it’s a very short time to make the personal impression so important to Granite State voters”.
Steve Duprey, a longtime New Hampshire Republican operative, was more blunt about Christie’s chances. “I think it is too late,” said Duprey. “[Christie] has 100 days between October 1 and the New Hampshire primary and 95 between then and Iowa. He would need to find staff, file, organize, and raise at least 50 million dollars — or about a half million a day.”
In regards Iowa, Dave Roederer, a veteran Hawkeye State GOP operative, said that “it’s not too late but it’s about to run into realism if the Iowa Caucuses becomes another New Years Day Bowl Championship Game.”
While most strategists agree an opening for Christie exists, what’s less clear is whether the governor would choose to play in both states if he does decide to run.
Iowa has been more friendly to socially conservative candidates in recent Republican presidential caucuses and some of Christie’s positions — on civil unions, for one — could complicate his path in the Hawkeye State.
New Hampshire seems the more obvious fit for Christie’s outspoken brand of fiscal conservatism although Romney’s strength in the race is not to be overlooked.
How receptive Iowa and New Hampshire might be to a Christie candidacy is surely one of the leading factors the New Jersey governor is weighing as he makes up his mind. And, from the look of the playing field in each state, it’s seems open enough for Christie to move forward.