DES MOINES, Iowa – Chris Christie is no stranger to Iowa. Republican audiences have cheered the New Jersey governor's famously frank talk as he's campaigned in the state — officially for others, not himself — during the past five years.
Still, Christie will venture into new Iowa territory on Saturday, speaking to an audience full of the kinds of strict social conservatives who have held sway in the state's leadoff presidential caucuses for a generation.
"He has the opportunity to open some eyes there," says state Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican lawmaker who met the governor last week.
Christie is steadily working his way toward a widely expected run for president in 2016. Few would pick him to emerge as the Iowa caucuses' favorite among the state's robust Christian right. The reason will be on stage with Christie: Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and a few others, each considering a presidential bid and carrying a more natural appeal among evangelical voters.
Yet Christie sees the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by conservative Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, as a chance to set himself apart from the likely candidates to whom he's most often compared: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Neither will be at the forum, which is expected to draw nearly 100 reporters to Iowa for the first big event of the 2016 GOP campaign.
"If I do run, I'll be myself and we'll see how Iowans like that," Christie told reporters last week while visiting 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 opposes gay marriage, he said in 2011 that his Roman Catholic faith "does not rule who I am." He also 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 campaign and policy 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 key 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.
His 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.
Branstad called Christie's speech that night, a list of budget battles with Democrats punctuated with humor and tough talk, the best he'd heard from a Republican since Ronald Reagan. The following spring, a cadre of Branstad donors went to New Jersey hoping to persuade 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 last week. 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."