DES MOINES, Iowa — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he's not running for president, but he's still leaving an imprint on the 2012 Republican campaign as a potential kingmaker — and distraction.
His visit to Iowa on Monday is evidence of both.
Christie is swooping in to speak at an education conference in Des Moines and headline a political fundraiser for a congressman.
Although Christie has batted away the possibility of a 2012 run at every turn, some of the GOP presidential contenders have sought his advice and support.
"If he feels compelled that he can make a difference, he may endorse a candidate," said Christie's senior political adviser, Mike DuHaime.
Christie is inviting national attention at a time when GOP voters have been slow to embrace the field of announced candidates. His visit comes on the same day when two hopefuls, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, were scheduled to campaign in the leadoff caucus state ahead of an August straw poll.
"Any time Christie comes out here, he's obviously going to take some air out of the room," said Doug Gross, an influential Iowa Republican who has not committed to a candidate in the 2012 campaign. "He again creates this sense that the current field isn't complete or isn't sufficient."
The attention on Christie may ebb if Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the race next month.
But efforts to court Christie have continued this summer even though he has said that his four school-age children and further goals in his first term make a White House bid out of the question.
This past week, Christie met with Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, among the influential economic conservatives who want Christie to run.
In May, a meeting with Christie in Princeton, N.J., that was arranged by a group of Iowa GOP business leaders and donors made headlines as a sign of discontent with the GOP field. Iowa activists are accustomed to being courted in their own state.
The group's leader, energy company executive Bruce Rastetter, had been impressed by Christie last fall when the New Jersey governor headlined a fundraiser for Terry Branstad's gubernatorial campaign. Rastetter was Branstad's top fundraiser in 2010.
Christie agreed during the May meeting to attend the education conference organized by Branstad and to stop in at the fundraiser in West Des Moines for U.S. Rep. Steve King.
It makes sense for Christie to stay in the good graces of Iowa Republicans, should he keep the door open for running for president in 2016, as he has.
The King event is in part out of gratitude for the congressman's support for Christie at a congressional hearing two years ago, King adviser Chuck Laudner said.
Christie, then the nominee for New Jersey governor, faced pointed questioning at a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in the Democratic-controlled House about no-bid contracts he awarded as U.S. attorney in New Jersey. Christie's star has risen quickly after he defeated a Democratic governor in a Democratic state just a year after Democrat Barack Obama was elected president.
But Christie's national profile has continued to rise, in part for his frank and sometimes confrontational exchanges with media, captured on video and circulated on the internet by his staff.
He has drawn praise from fiscal hawks and loud complaints from public-sector unions for efforts to trim benefits for public employees as part of steep budget cuts in his first two years in office.
Christie is pursuing education measures aimed at abolishing indefinite tenure for teachers and establishing merit-based pay. Branstad said last week he will propose linking teacher pay raises to classroom performance.
Christie's approval has begun to slip in public opinion polls from a healthy rating of roughly half of New Jersey voters a year ago to below 50 percent in recent months, while his disapproval has also inched higher to near 50 percent at the same time.