BEDFORD, N.H. — Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey hit the campaign trail in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state Friday, igniting speculation about his political aspirations even as he backed those of a GOP gubernatorial candidate.
Christie, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, was ostensibly in town to campaign with Walt Havenstein, a Republican running for New Hampshire governor. But it was Christie’s White House 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 photos. Christie signed a baseball for John Hollow of Boston, and photos for Mike Marsh of Woburn, who wants to see him run for president in 2016.
Asked by a reporter if he was visiting to begin laying the groundwork, Christie was coy: “Absolutely not. How dare you?”
He said instead that he is doing his best to help the Republican Party by electing GOP governors around the country and taking control of the Senate in 2014. Havenstein is one of two Republicans vying to challenge Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, in November. Despite Christie’s affiliation, the governors group itself is not endorsing in the primary.
“It’s New Hampshire and that’s the way it is,” Christie said, of the 2016 speculation about him. “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.”
It was his first trip to New Hampshire since 2012 — and following last year’s bridge scandal that suddenly 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 Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition. And last week, he made his first appearance on a talk show since the bridge controversy, appearing 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.”
While Christie has begun making forays back into glad-handing, the bridge scandal still clouds his political forecast. His aides allegedly caused traffic backups in Fort Lee, N.J., just outside Manhattan, as a means of political retaliation against the local mayor.
The governor has insisted he was not privy to his aides’ actions, and fired or removed them. But this week, an article in Esquire, citing two sources close to the case being led by the US attorney for New Jersey, suggested indictments are expected for Christie aides and that the governor remains the target. Christie would not answer a question about the report, saying: “I don’t respond to every crazy rumor that’s out there.”
Havenstein, when asked in an interview whether he had any concerns about the ongoing controversy, pointed to Christie’s leadership after the bridge crisis erupted.
“Leaders fix things,” he said, “and I think the people of New Jersey appreciate the fact that when a problem was discovered, he took quick and decisive action.”
Havenstein, according to his campaign biography, has served in the Marines and as chief executive of two defense contracting companies. 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.
“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.”
Recent polls show that should Havenstein win the primary, he has ground to make up against Hassan.
Christie, who also held an RGA fund-raiser in New Hampshire on Friday, attended an event for Havenstein’s campaign in the evening.
Havenstein said he was not concerned that the governor would take center stage. “Well, he’s here to endorse me. I’m not being asked to endorse him or anything like that,” he said.
Wendy Keller, a Republican retiree who lives in Hudson, N.H., acknowledged she didn’t know anything about Havenstein until Friday, when she heard Christie was coming to campaign with him. She read Havenstein’s bio and dashed out to T-Bones.
“I think he’ll run,” she said of the New Jersey governor, though she is not necessarily sold on him as the candidate. “I think the Republicans have a tough road ahead of them because of everything that’s happened and the Democratic machine that gets out in front of everything and skews it and twists it.”
She had just been talking with friends about Republicans’ offerings for president in 2016; they were not enthused. Asked about the possibility of a third run by Mitt Romney, she exhaled something between a sigh and a groan. “Oh,” she said. “We need somebody else. Somebody else.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.