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Jan 24, 2015 11:14 AM

Would-be 2016 GOP candidates woo Iowa's social conservatives

The Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) After years of campaigning in Iowa for others, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is venturing into new territory as a potential White House candidate appealing to social conservatives who hold sway in the early-voting state.

"He has the opportunity to open some eyes there," says GOP state Rep. Chip Baltimore.

Few would pick him to emerge as the 2016 favorite in the Iowa caucuses among the state's robust Christian right.

To understand why, just look at some of the potential rivals sharing the stage Saturday at the Iowa Freedom Summit: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others who more naturally resonate with evangelical voters.

Yet Christie sees the gathering hosted by U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, as a chance to set him apart from the likely candidates to whom he most is often compared: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"Do you believe that the next president of the United States is going to be speaking to you today?" King opened the event by asking the crowd, which erupted in applause. "As do I."

Bush and Romney are skipping the forum, billed as the first big event of the unfolding 2016 campaign.

"If I do run, I'll be myself and we'll see how Iowans like that," Christie told reporters last week while in Iowa for Gov. Terry Branstad's inauguration.

Christie got a taste of some of the state's more conservative voters at King's annual pheasant hunt luncheon in October.

While Christie has opposed abortion rights for 20 years and is against gay marriage, he said in 2011 that his Roman Catholic faith "does not rule who I am." He has said homosexuality is not a sin and that he believes people who are gay are "born with a predisposition."

Those are statements could haunt him in a state where the past two caucus winners, Santorum and Huckabee, closely aligned themselves with Iowa's evangelical pastors and Christian home-school network.

"It's going to be tough for him here," said Justin Arnold, a Republican strategist in Iowa. "There's an image of him as a moderate."

Christie has responded by working over the past five years to build connections with the state's political players, and that includes raising money for King's re-election campaigns.

The two have a relationship that dates to 2009, when King defended Christie before the House Judiciary Committee, where he was called to testify as a U.S. attorney while in the final weeks of his winning campaign for governor.

Christie's big Iowa debut came the next year, when he headlined a fundraiser for Branstad that drew 800 people and netted $400,000 in the closing weeks of Branstad's comeback campaign for governor.

The following spring, some influential Branstad donors went to New Jersey in hopes of persuading Christie to run for president in 2012.

Those efforts have won Christie the loyalty of some influential Branstad staff, including former chief of staff Jeff Boeyink, who set up meetings between Christie and Republican lawmakers and county GOP leaders last week.

"Republicans are not going to win a national election unless voters have an emotional attachment to our candidate," said Boeyink, who would be expected to play a key role in Iowa for Christie. "Chris Christie has that ability."

Gwen Ecklund, the Republican Party chairwoman in a conservative, rural western Iowa county, attended one of those meetings with Christie. Her reaction sums up where Christie stands in Iowa a year before the caucus.

"I was pleasantly impressed with him, more than I thought I would be," Ecklund said. "Is he the best person? I don't know yet."


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