Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
LEBANON, N.H. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who spurned repeated calls to run for president himself — endorsed Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination Tuesday, sending a signal to the skeptical GOP establishment to fall in line behind the former Massachusetts governor.
"I'm here in New Hampshire for one simple reason: America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's the man to lead America and we need him now," Christie said, standing alongside Romney.
The endorsement was a surprise, coming just hours before a GOP presidential debate and just a week after the pugnacious, budget-cutting Christie disappointed party elders and top GOP donors when he decided last week that he wouldn't run for president in 2012.
In the intervening days, Romney and his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have been scrambling to win support from the donors and party elders who had been sitting on the sidelines and waiting for Christie to decide.
It's unclear just how much impact — if any — the endorsement will have with voters less than three months before the primary voting season begins and as Romney tries to position himself as the party's inevitable nominee.
Voters tend to make up their own minds about who to support.
But Christie's endorsement could influence groups Romney has struggled to win over — a core segment of the GOP establishment that isn't enthused by him, and the tea party, many of whom view him as insincere on issues they hold dear.
In a hastily arranged news conference on the debate sidelines, Christie said the former Massachusetts governor could beat Obama and has the right mix of private sector and government experience to be president.
Christie also addressed what's perhaps Romney's biggest vulnerability — the Massachusetts health care measure that he signed into law and that was a model for Obama's nationwide measure that conservatives detest.
The New Jersey governor said it was "completely intellectually dishonest" to link Romney's measure with Obama's. And Christie added of Romney: "I'm proud of him for doing what he thought was right" on health care in Massachusetts.
Romney, in turn, called Christie a "hero" because of his record of cutting government spending as governor of New Jersey.
Christie has closer ties to the former Massachusetts governor than to other candidates. Romney endorsed Christie when the former U.S. attorney ran for governor in 2009. And in January, he became the first Republican presidential contender to visit Christie at the governor's mansion in Princeton.
Christie's financial supporters had been waiting for him to decide before backing a different candidate. The New Jersey governor's endorsement is a blow to Perry, as it's likely to send much of that cash to Romney. Several top Christie donors, including Home Depot financier Ken Langone, had already announced they would back Romney.
Romney already had an $18 million financial head start over Perry, who couldn't start raising money until August, when he announced his presidential bid. Perry raised more than $17 million in his first six weeks campaigning, showing he can keep pace with Romney's financial resources. Romney is expected to announce he raised more than $14 million between July and September.
Christie's backing could help solidify Romney's standing as the most logical candidate in a field that just became settled last week, after Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin both decided not to run.
On a conference call later in the day, Christie addressed a supporter's suggestion that he become Romney's running mate.
"That's going to be Governor Romney's choice," Christie said. "I've told him my only interest is helping him get elected and serving my state."
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