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MARION, Iowa — It can only mean one thing when a splendid midsummer afternoon finds the governor of New Jersey working a crowd of 200 in a small restaurant here, signing autographs, posing for selfies, cooing over babies.
The exhibition season for the 2016 presidential election is underway.
And while Chris Christie refuses to say whether he is running, his swing through the state on Thursday made it clear that he is not not running.
Officially, Christie was here in his capacity as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, raising money both for that organization and for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s reelection bid.
Wherever he went, he sidestepped questions about his long-term ambitions, and stuck to the task of ginning up money and enthusiasm for this year’s elections.
In Davenport, where Christie headlined a fundraising dinner for Branstad, he told the governor's supporters: “You are still the most powerful force in American politics. … Let’s not fall short.”
After election day, “we will all turn our eyes toward taking our country back. But first things first,” Christie said.
Yet the trip also marked something of a re-emergence for Christie in the wake of the George Washington Bridge scandal, which, as recently as February, appeared to have the potential to destroy his viability as a national contender.
Even as he urged Republicans to work hard for the next 100 days before the election, he added that if they do, "I'll see you back here in Iowa really soon."
Scott County GOP chairwoman Judy Davidson said Iowa voters have not been fazed by the scandal, and take Christie at his word that he had nothing to do with a massive traffic jam that his aides orchestrated in apparent payback against a mayor.
“I believe him and take him at his word,” Davidson said, adding that she believes that the controversy has been ginned up for political reasons.
“There is a certain party that likes to belabor issues,” Davidson said.
“They love me in Iowa,” Christie had boasted a few months back.
Do they still? A new NBC poll found that 33 percent of Iowa Republicans don’t even like him.
“I don’t care about being loved,” Christie said. “I care about being respected.”
And judging by the reception he got on Thursday, Iowans are open to being courted by Christie.
“I like how down to earth he is,” said Austen Winders, an 18-year-old from Cedar Rapids who was part of a group of teens that brought four photographs and two baseballs for Christie to sign.
“He’s awesome,” his friend Spencer Wilhelm, 16, agreed.
But his arrival was also greeted with $75,000 in online ads by the conservative group Judicial Crisis Network slamming Christie’s record on judicial nominations.
Some conservatives also complain that Christie, an opponent of same-sex marriage, did not fight hard enough against his state’s supreme court, when it struck down New Jersey’s ban.
In a session with reporters in the parking lot outside MJ’s Restaurant, Christie was asked whether he is conservative enough for this state’s GOP caucusgoers.
“Oh, who knows,” he said. “People get to know you and make a judgment on you.”
What matters more than any differences over the issues, he said, is whether voters feel a personal connection and trust.
“Iowa gives people a fair shake. If he treats social conservatives with respect, social conservatives will reciprocate. You have to work really hard to offend Iowans,” said Jamie Johnson, a state central committeeman who directed former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s Iowa coalition-building operation during the 2012 presidential campaign. Santorum eked out a victory in the caucuses that year, largely on his strength with religiously conservative voters.
But Johnson added that Iowa voters “always ask very direct, straightforward questions. They will be coming and he has to be prepared to answer them.”
As Christie made his way through MJ's, Branstad said that Christie has the potential to do well in Iowa, should he run.
Then again, so do a lot of other Republicans, he said, listing the names of a half-dozen potential contenders: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Marco Rubio of Florida.
"Any one of them potentially could win Iowa," Branstad said, adding that in 2008, "Nobody thought Barack Obama could win Iowa. They thought Hillary Clinton would win, and she came in third."