The courtship began at a restaurant called MJ's in downtown Marion, Iowa. How well did it go? Let's just say Gov. Chris Christie and Iowa will most definitely have a second date.
The restaurant was packed with Republican activists (and void of actual diners) who greeted Christie with huge applause, handshakes and hugs. Dozens of reporters trailed his every move.
"I'm Chris, nice to meet ya," Christie said, over and again, before adding: "I'm happy to be back in Iowa." He was reminding Iowans that he's been subtly courting them for years -- this is his fourth trip since he was elected governor -- but he is now moving into the official dating stage, with the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses less than 18 months away.
Ostensibly, Christie was out here in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, raising money and attracting attention for Gov. Terry Branstad. But Branstad is very popular here and is up by double digits in the polls. So the second reason Christie is here -- and maybe the real reason -- is so he could do some pre-campaigning for president. With an entourage in tow he flew by private plane for stops throughout Iowa for maximum exposure in the state’s different media markets -- and to collect business cards of potential presidential donors. One Republican Governors Association fundraiser he headlined cost $25,000 to attend.
"Are you ready to beat Hillary?" a woman at MJ's asked Christie.
"One thing I never lack is confidence," Christie said. "You don't have to worry about that."
"Why can't you be tough right now?" she asked.
"I'm in my kind stage right now. I'll be tough when I have to be."
Voter after voter said what they liked about Christie wasn't his policies -- many said they wished he was more conservative on issues like abortion -- but his style. Phrases like "strong leader" and "straight-shooter" and "tells it like it is" came up again and again.
"Ronald Reagan had the same talent -- he could smile, meet people, make you feel like you knew the guy a long time," said Richard Bice, 82, who met Reagan in Des Moines in 1980.
"I just like the way he goes after people," said 72-year-old Joyce Dierks. "I like his forthrightness. He says it tells it like it is. And that's what we need."
Later, at a fairgrounds 70 miles to the east in Davenport, Christie took the mic at a fundraising dinner for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad that was covered live by CSPAN. He stepped away from the podium, planted his hand in his pocket, and gave an unscripted speech that had a mix of humor, folksiness, religiosity and Frank Underwood.
"You get these folks from the press follow me around asking me, 'Do people in Iowa love you, governor?'" Christie said. "And I say, 'Heck I don't know, we just met! But the early indications are good.'"
Bridgegate appeared to be a non-issue among Iowa Republicans. The fact that media and political investigations have been going on for more than six months -- and the lane closures haven’t been pinned on Christie himself -- seems to back up their belief that the allegations were trumped by a liberal media and Democrats. Many here echoed Christie’s explanation, that he can’t possibly know what all of his underlings are doing, and when he found out about it he acted decisively. One 34-year-old man who manages a McDonald's said he saw parallels with his job – he doesn’t always know what all of his employees are doing, but once he finds out he acts decisively.
Christie said he's been to 19 states campaigning for Republican candidates -- records show he's been out of New Jersey more than 50 days since his January inauguration. He told the folks at the fairgrounds about the importance of electing Republicans around the country, saying any differences within the GOP "are small compared to the ones we have with the other party."
The crowd, finishing up their pulled pork sandwiches, gave Christie a standing ovation when he was done, and followed him out the door. As Christie got into an SUV, "Hail to the Chief" played from speakers attached to a trailer that was pulling a large plastic elephant. Along with his brother, Todd, and close adviser Jeff Chiesa, the former U.S. Senator from New Jersey, a private plane shuttled him back to New Jersey. He'll be out of town again next week, doing more campaign and fundraising around the country.