AMES, Iowa — Chris Christie is trying to make it clear that he’s not giving up on Iowa.
While the New Jersey governor has made nine jaunts up to New Hampshire this year, the likely presidential candidate returned to the Hawkeye State on Thursday for the first time in three months, arguing that there’s still hope for his potential campaign here despite dismal poll numbers.
“If I decide to run, there’s certainly a path to do really well here in Iowa,” he told reporters, citing the fact that he’s been invited to the state numerous times by Gov. Terry Branstad and has always “drawn great crowds and really enthusiastic people.”
He pledged to return “a lot” after the New Jersey legislature wraps up on June 30, roughly the same time period Christie is expected to launch his presidential campaign. Later Thursday night, he told an Iowa audience they can be “guaranteed ” that they’ll see him again soon.
But he’s not exactly setting high expectations. Asked by reporters if he’s confident he could win Iowa’s caucuses next February, Christie said anyone who thinks they are “absolutely sure” they can win the contest is “not telling the truth.”
“What I know is if I get into the race, I’ll compete and I’ll present my ideas and that’s the best you can do,” he said. “I’ve raised a lot of money out here in Iowa for a lot of candidates over time. People don’t show up if they’re not interested in you and they don’t think you’re interesting. So that’s a good place to start.”
The most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll showed Christie at 4% among likely Republican caucus-goers, with 58% viewing him unfavorably — numbers that indicate a steep hill for Christie to climb.
The governor stressed that his focus is on the long haul, however, not on the daily horse race.
“There’s nothing that will happen in June or July or August or September in 2015 that’s make-or-break for votes that won’t happen until February of 2016 and beyond,” he told reporters. “I know for folks that cover this like you and for others that read it, the drama is really important — ‘today’s a make or break day for something.’ It’s not. It’s not make or break until people start voting.”
Indeed, Christie’s two-day itinerary resembles the schedule of a candidate trying to compete in Iowa. He delivered a nearly hour-long speech on education on Thursday morning at Iowa State University, laying out specific proposals to tackle higher education costs and public education.
After that, he stopped by Hickory Farms to shake hands with voters as they had lunch.
Headlining a Polk County GOP dinner Thursday night in West Des Moines, Christie issued blistering critiques of President Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy.
“Aggression happens in this world in response to weakness, and peace happens in this world in response to strength and this president has forgotten that lesson,” Christie said. “I will tell you this: Vladimir Putin would never have to wonder what I thought was acceptable and what I thought was unacceptable.”
Christie also went after Sen. Rand Paul, though not by name, and other Patriot Act opponents for waging a fight in the Senate over the law’s renewal. Calling those actions “disgraceful” and “dangerous,” Christie lit into people like Paul for raising money off of the debate.
“They send out fundraising solicitations to raise money off those speeches and then brag about how much money they raised by scaring people about their civil liberties,” he said.
Christie’s hands aren’t entirely clean on that front either, however. His own political action committee, Leadership Matters for America, also sent out fundraising emails during the debate, asking for support to help stand up to efforts by Paul and others.
“When you take away tools from our intelligence community … you are throwing your hands up in surrender rather than fighting to protect the homeland,” Christie said Friday night.
Christie continues his two-day trip in Iowa Friday with a town hall in Cedar Rapids.