Is 2016 on his mind? NJ Gov. Christie back again in Iowa

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, returning to Iowa to headline one of the biggest events on the state's political calendar, criticized President Barack Obama in a fiery speech Saturday night that sounded like the early makings of a presidential pitch.

"America used to control events both here at home and around the world. And now it seems that our fate is being dictated to us by others," Christie said. "It is because of the lack of leadership that we have in the White House. It has been six long years, but I bring you good news: There are only two more years left,"

Christie was the featured speaker at fellow GOP Gov. Terry Branstad's birthday bash in Clive, outside Des Moines. Earlier in the day Christie attended Rep. Steve King's annual pheasant hunt lunch in Akron, in northwest Iowa, giving him the chance to meet with Republican activists and fundraisers who could propel a potential White House bid in 2016. He skipped the hunt itself.

He began a long day in the Midwest by attending a tailgate fundraiser before the Rutgers-Nebraska football game in Lincoln, Nebraska, a guest of GOP gubernatorial nominee Pete Ricketts.

Christie's speech Saturday night was meant to boost Iowa's Republican ticket, including Branstad, who is on track to become the nation's longest-serving governor. But he spent the bulk of his time on stage painting the picture of a country hungry for leadership and a world adrift, with a feckless White House to blame.

The visit, about a week before the midterm elections, was Christie's third in recent times to a state, and yet again stoked speculation that he is laying the groundwork for a presidential run. Indeed, Christie, who serves as chair of the Republican Governors Association, announced during his speech that he'll be back in Iowa once against on Thursday -- despite Branstad's double-digit lead in recent polls.

While the state's Republican voters are generally seen as more conservative than Christie's natural base and his support among a wide-open field lags in early polling among likely GOP caucus-goers, Christie has forged strong ties with some important Iowa operatives who have made it clear they would jump to help if he decided to run.

"I'm strongly supporting him," said Jim Kersten, a former state senator who joined other Iowa powerbrokers on a mission to New Jersey in 2011 to try to lure the governor into running against Obama.

Kersten said Christie's latest visit would allow him to interact with a wide cross-section of voters.

Kersten said the stop in northwest Iowa, "the heart of the conservative Republican base, is very important and I think it says a lot that he's willing to come up and have a discussion with them."

The crowd of several hundred at Branstad's celebration represented "the real faithful from all across the state," Kersten said. "So I think it gives him an opportunity to really see and get to know and other Iowans get to know him."

But even with enthusiastic backers, recent polls suggest Christie could face an uphill climb is he were to make a play for Iowa.

A recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll found just 6 percent of Republican likely caucus-goers say Christie would be their first choice for president; that put him eighth in a crowded group of potential hopefuls led by 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who has said he won't run again.

While the field appears wide open, Christie's negative ratings are the highest of the bunch, with 45 percent of those who responded saying their feelings toward him are either mostly or very unfavorable.

John Ymker, 65, who runs a pork plant, said he was open to a potential Christie candidacy, but he has his doubts, pointing specifically to Christie's embrace of Obama after Superstorm Sandy.

"You know, birds who flock fly together," he said before heading into King's lunch. "That bothered me."