Iowa Republicans are urging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to contest the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses if he runs for president in 2016, warning a decision to ignore the Hawkeye State would do more harm than good to his campaign.
Christie is widely expected to focus on the New Hampshire primary if he runs — partly out of a calculation that he’d fare better in the Granite State than among social conservatives, who hold powerful sway in the Iowa GOP.
“It’s very personal in Iowa. How people react to you as an individual is very important,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The Hill.
“The unique part of the Iowa caucuses is you get to know the candidates personally.”
King spoke glowingly of Christie, who previously endorsed the conservative Iowan and appeared at a fundraiser for him in 2012.
“He had a tremendous welcome in Iowa the times he dropped in,” King said. “I just remember the looks in the eyes of folks ... they were energized by him. He is a magnetic personality.”
Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, who recently criticized Christie for deciding to drop a legal challenge to gay marriage in New Jersey, also said the governor could be competitive in the state.
“I think Iowans realize this country is in a very precarious position on a lot of fronts, and it’s going to need some really bold leadership. If he’s bold and confrontational on the issues and why conservative principles are better than liberal principles, I think it’ll serve him really well,” Vander Plaats told The Hill.
The praise from King and Vander Plaats highlights Christie’s political strength — the perception he’s a straight-talking populist who can relate to ordinary voters.
But he also faces significant obstacles to success in Iowa, particularly on issues like immigration and gay marriage.
Christie has previously expressed support for a pathway to citizenship and tuition breaks for illegal immigrants, positions that put him at odds with King and many social conservatives.
King said Christie’s view on immigration is a “vulnerability” for Christie in the state, as is his embrace of some gun-control measures.
Christie would also likely take heat for the infamous hug he gave President Obama shortly before the 2012 election when Obama visited New Jersey to appraise the damage from Hurricane Sandy.
It was seen by many Republicans as a betrayal of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Every Iowa conservative and commentator contacted by The Hill mentioned the hug as a sticking point.
But both Vander Plaats and King said the fastest way to earning credibility as a candidate — in Iowa and beyond — is for Christie to address his perceived problems with the party’s right win by contesting the caucuses.
Avoiding Iowa “would just go completely contrary to what has been billed as one of his greatest strengths, and that is being able to confront issues head on,” Vander Plaats said.
Christie will have to “step up and speak from his heart on the things that he believes” in Iowa, added King.
Speculation that Christie might not contest Iowa grew following the gay marriage decision. Tom Kean (R), a former New Jersey governor and Christie mentor, when asked about the prospect last month told The Hill: “It’s a judgment he’ll make down the line — I doubt it.”
But there are also signs he’s wooing Iowa voters. Christie recently vetoed a New Jersey bill to ban farmers from raising pregnant pigs in crates: Hog farming is a major industry in Iowa.
One danger for Christie if he skips Iowa is that he would miss out on weeks of national media attention that is traditionally heaped on candidates in the earliest presidential nominating state.
“It’s important because of the attention that people coming to Iowa get. If you’re only hitting New Hampshire, and you’re not hitting Iowa, then you’re still losing out on a good chunk of attention,” said University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle.
He also suggested Christie has a shot at contesting the state if a number of more conservative candidates split the conservative vote.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to skip the Iowa caucuses in 2008 was widely viewed as a strategic blunder that contributed to his downfall in the campaign.
Outperforming expectations in Iowa could give Christie a boost, much as it did for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who finished a strong fourth there in 2008. McCain’s Iowa director Jon Seaton said the key to McCain’s campaign was a focus on the ground game.
“If you are personable, a good retail candidate and build a good grassroots campaign, you’re gonna be rewarded in Iowa,” Seaton said.
“Even though there were some issues [McCain] didn’t see eye to eye with your typical Iowa caucus-goer, he performed very well at the town-hall meetings; he launched an aggressive ground campaign, and he was rewarded.”
Christie, observers say, could try to rally independents to make up for the conservatives he might otherwise lose.
And many Republicans suggested the perception of Iowa as run by the social conservative wing of the party is overblown.
It seems, too, that Christie is heeding the advice of those gunning for him to make a play for Iowa.
“I hear some soundings from some folks who know Christie looking for organizational opportunities in Iowa,” said Doug Gross, an Iowa GOP fundraiser close to Gov. Terry Branstad (R) who has urged Christie to run. “[It’s coming] from folks who want to see if he can make an effective run.”