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Mar 13, 2015 3:24 AM

Christie building up campaign while sticking close to home

The Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's team is pushing back against the impression that he's struggling in his expected presidential bid.

Lest there be any doubt his presidential prospects are alive, Christie's supporters announced new hires and donors Thursday, as well as the launch of a super PAC that can raise unlimited money for his presidential ambitions.

But the Republican governor nonetheless appears to be taking a different tack than his likely rivals when it comes to how he's spending his time. Facing a lagging economy in the state and record-low approval ratings, he's staying close to home as other potential candidates attend highly publicized events with party officials and activists in early voting states.

That's raising questions, if not frustration, for some people open to supporting him.

"What people keep asking me is when is he coming back? What's the next step?" said Leighton Lord, a South Carolina attorney who went to college with Christie and co-hosted a gathering for him when he attended Gov. Nikki Haley's inauguration in January. Lord said being New Jersey governor is surely "a solemn responsibility, but at some point the people of New Jersey have got to let him get out."

Christie, whose packed schedule last year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association took him to 36 states 19 in the five days before the midterm election has fewer public events planned for this month than many prospective rivals. He's in Florida this week, but mostly for a family vacation as well as a closed-door luncheon held by his top cheerleader, Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, on Wednesday. That's it until several days of travel late in the month to Pennsylvania and Texas fundraisers and to the Michigan GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner.

Problems at home represent significant liabilities as Christie tries to sell himself to voters. National Democrats have pointed to New Jersey's budgetary problems and a sense among some residents that he's been more focused on presidential ambitions than governing the state.

Amid such talk, Christie has begun weekly town hall meetings across New Jersey to talk about the state's next budget, forums that his backers say show off his retail campaigning skills.

"He's doing his job to get his state in a position where he feels comfortable running for president," said former Iowa state Sen. Jim Kersten, a longtime Christie backer. "He's out there talking to real people unfiltered, and that's where I think his strength is."

In contrast, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seen as Christie's top challenger for establishment dollars and has no day job, has been ramping up his travel. He'll make his first trip to New Hampshire this weekend and to South Carolina next week. The two states hold the first primaries of the campaign season after Iowa's caucuses. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making his first visit to New Hampshire this weekend before a two-day sprint in South Carolina next week.

Once considered a top-tier candidate, Christie has been struggling in recent polls. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in March, for instance, found 57 percent of registered voters who say they'll vote in a Republican primary say they cannot see themselves supporting Christie for the nomination.

Samantha Smith, speaking for Christie's PAC, Leadership Matters for America, brushed off the lull in political travel. "He can walk and chew gum at the same time," she said. "He can fundraise while continuing to do his job as governor."

Christie did in some ways get a head start, with all his networking last year for the Republican Governors Association. And his aides appear comfortable letting the scrutiny settle for now on Bush, Walker and others, and Christie's travel is expected to pick up in April. On Thursday, Christie's PAC announced the hiring of three advisers with experience in the campaigns of former President George W. Bush.

"Clearly he's getting off to a later start than some of his principle rivals, but at the same time he's been wise to spend time on state matters," said Fred Malek, a longtime Republican fundraiser and finance chair of the Republican Governors Association. "It's far more important in the long run to get the organization and the people right than to move with haste and I think he has plenty of time to catch up on the fundraising as well as political fronts."


Follow Jill Colvin on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/colvinj


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