Phantom campaign would give Christie a head start in GOP presidential race

Those who say it's too late in the season for Chris Christie to run for the Republican presidential nomination may be missing one thing: The Christie for President campaign has been advancing in absentia for months.

The phantom campaign for the brassy, no-nonsense governor of New Jersey means Christie would start the race with advantages most candidates struggle to obtain for weeks after they start the marathon: national name recognition, a degree of inoculation against opposition research and donors literally begging for the chance to put his name on their checks.

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As speculation in the national media has approached a fever pitch, Christie’s name has become a more frequent sight in headlines and on television screens than those of the many of the actual candidates. A Fox News poll released Sept. 28 found that only 28 percent of registered voters had yet to make up their minds about if Christie should enter the race. (More said they thought he shouldn’t than should.)

“He's certainly better known than almost anyone in his position would be,” said pollster Patrick Murray of Monmouth University. “One thing he will be able to do is raise money. He's proven it.”

The lack of a highly developed national fundraising infrastructure would no doubt pose a challenge for Christie, whose would-be opponents have state finance chairs and volunteers in place and dozens of fundraisers under their belt. But what he lacks in infrastructure he may be able to make up in enthusiasm.

Big-money donors from Iowa and South Carolina — two early-voting states with outsized influence over the presidential nominating process — have worked diligently and persistently to persuade Christie to enter the race.

“He would be greatly appreciated and welcomed with open arms to the field,” said Gary Kirke, an Iowa businessman who organized a donor trip to New Jersey in May to court a Christie candidacy. “It’s really not too late.”

Another obstacle to building a base of support is that most of the big-name donors and endorsers have already thrown their support behind one of the announced candidates. Yet the continuing clamoring for Christie and others to enter the already jam-packed field indicate a longing for a “better” candidate that could cause those already on board with another candidate to abandon ship.

“As soon as he can demonstrate that he can beat Barack Obama — and I think in certain circles that has already been demonstrated — all of these people who give the big money, they'll abandon whoever they are with today for the guy down the street who will be the winner tomorrow,” said Chris Ingram, a Republican strategist in Tampa, Fla.

Front-runners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney were shown up by businessman Herman Cain at a straw poll in Florida one week ago when the underdog Cain took more votes than Perry and Romney combined. And Florida became all the more important to the GOP race Friday when a committee voted to hold its presidential primary in late January, putting it at the front of the primary season.

Ingram said a source in Florida close to Christie’s family had adamantly told him Christie wouldn’t run, but changed his tune Friday and is now uncertain. Reports in both national and New Jersey news outlets in recent days have suggested Christie is reconsidering and will make a decision within days.

As anticipation of a campaign has grown, the opposition research has already started targeting Christie’s phantom campaign, with advocacy groups, reporters and fellow politicians preemptively picking apart his record on issues both social and economic. Yet while those attacks would hurt him with some voters, they give him an ironic advantage: He would enter the race battle hardened and not a fresh-faced neophyte about to be burned by the magnifying glass.

And some of Christie’s worst weaknesses and biggest faux pas have already been exposed to national audiences, thanks to the intense interest the national media has paid him during his term as governor. When most governors are accused of misspending taxpayer dollars and respond in a news conference, the local newspapers show up. When Christie used a state helicopter to fly to his son’s baseball game, CNN showed up and covered it live.

If he runs, Christie will face a barrage of attacks in the few short months before the first caucuses and primaries — and many of them will sting. His ability to appeal to the right flank of the GOP base and win the primary is seriously in question.

But there’s something to be said for having your dirty laundry already be a YouTube hit.