BEDFORD, N.H. — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie hit the campaign trail in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state on Friday, igniting speculation about his own political aspirations even as he backed those of a GOP gubernatorial candidate here.
Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was ostensibly in town to campaign with Walt Havenstein, a Republican running for governor. But it was Christie’s chances that were on everyone’s mind.
National media crews and curious voters swarmed T-Bones restaurant as Christie joined Havenstein to shake hands and pose for cell phone photos pictures. He signed a baseball for John Hollow of Boston, and photos for Mike Marsh of Woburn, who wants to see him run in 2016.
Asked by a reporter if he was visiting to begin laying the groundwork for 2016, Christie said flirtatiously, “Absolutely not. How dare you?”
He said instead that he is trying to lay the groundwork for the Republican Party by electing GOP governors around the country and taking control of the Senate in 2014.
“It’s New Hampshire and that’s the way it is,” Christie said, of the speculation. “But no, I’m here to make sure Walt has the best campaign and the best support he could possibly have. Listen, for whoever runs in 2016, New Hampshire will be a lot better if Walt’s the governor.”
Havenstein is one of two Republicans vying to challenge Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan in November. Despite Christie’s affiliation with the RGA, the group itself is not endorsing in the primary.
It was Christie’s first trip to New Hampshire since 2012 – and following last year’s bridge scandal that dimmed his once-promising chances of being a top GOP presidential contender.
Political observers viewed the trip as one of several tentative steps Christie is taking toward political rehabilitation. Earlier on Friday, Christie spoke in Washington, D.C., at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s summer meeting among conservatives including former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed.
And last week, he made his first appearance on a talk show since the bridge scandal, showing up on The Tonight Show, even dancing – badly — with host Jimmy Fallon.
“I had a lot of fun, “Christie told one woman in T-Bones, who said she’d seen the show. “I’ve got a few moves.”
Havenstein said in an interview he was excited to have Christie campaign with him. “My campaign is all about getting New Hampshire’s economy growing again because we have to do better and the governor is here to help me make that point,” he said.
Asked whether he was concerned Christie’s own aspirations might dominate discourse, Havenstein said, “Well, he’s here to endorse me. I’m not being asked to endorse him or anything like that. What it says is he believes the momentum my campaign is building and that I represent the best chance possible of putting a Republican in the governor’s office.”
Havenstein, a US Naval Academy graduate in Aerospace Engineering, retired as a Marine Colonel in 1999 after 28 years of service, 12 of them on active duty. In the private sector, he has served as CEO of two defense contractors — BAE Systems Inc., a global defense contractor, and SAIC, a scientific, engineering and technology company. He has focused his campaign on reviving the state’s record of economic growth, which he panned in an op-ed column in Friday’s New Hampshire Union-Leader, saying it is falling behind other New England states. “Frankly, for the Granite Staters, that’s an embarrassment,” he said in an interview.
“I’ve got to tell you, my sense is that under Maggie Hassan, we got what I call a Walking Dead economy,” Havenstein said. “It has no life.”
“We have to do better. I’m all about breathing life into our economy,” he added.
Does he have any concerns that the controversy hanging over Christie will taint his endorsement?
Havenstein said that a test of leadership is not whether there are controversies, but how one digs out of them.
“Leaders fix things,” he said. “and I think the people of NJ appreciate the fact that when a problem was discovered, he took quick and decisive action.”