SALT LAKE CITY — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie offered his own no-holds-barred take on the presidential election Saturday night at Gov. Gary Herbert’s annual fundraiser, expected to raise more than $1 million.
Utah is just the latest stop for Christie, the keynote speaker at the recent GOP national convention in Tampa. The colorful governor is crossing the country, campaigning for fellow Republicans – and maybe laying the groundwork for a possible run for the White House in four years.
Saturday, he told Herbert’s supporters at the Grand America Hotel about his efforts to balance the budget in New Jersey, a state dominated by Democrats. Christie said he cut billions from the budget shortly after taking office rather than raise taxes.
“Leadership counts everybody. Leadership matters,” Christie said to applause.
He contrasted his ability to compromise with Democrats in his home state with what is happening in Washington under President Barack Obama.
“The president has no idea how to lead,” Christie said, describing the Democratic president as unable to “bat heads together when you need to do it.”
During his 50-minute speech, he spoke of his vision for the country being in opposition to what Democrats believe. “We don’t belong to the government. The government belongs to us,” Christie said.
He cited Obama’s recent statement that Washington can’t be changed from the inside and said, “imagine how feeble and lame you have to be” to suggest that. “He’s unwilling to be held accountable.”
The New Jersey governor, who joked that he skipped a Bruce Springsteen concert in New Jersey to be in Utah, said Utahns have a bigger role to play in the November election than just reelecting Herbert.
“It’s time to get up. It’s time to raise your voices. It’s time to stand up because time is running out,” Christie said, urging the partisan audience to reach out to voters in swing states to help get Mitt Romney elected. “I’m willing to fight with you.”
Christie’s appearance at Herbert’s “Governor’s Gala” fundraiser helped the event sell out weeks ago and attract 19 presenting sponsors, including the Utah Association of Realtors and Zions Bank, each paying $25,000 to attend a VIP reception with both governors.
Tables sold for $5,000 apiece and a total of 1,200 people were on the guest list for the annual fundraiser, a tradition for sitting governors for many years. Herbert was the first to break the $1 million mark for his campaign.
“Obviously, the governor is thrilled to have his good friend come out and dazzle all the folks,” Herbert campaign spokesman Marty Carpenter said.
Carpenter said Christie was not paid for his speech but the campaign arranged for the New Jersey governor and his staff to travel by private plane to Utah and are putting them up in a hotel overnight.
Christie chose not to run for president this election despite pleas from many within the party who were dissatisfied with the GOP field, including the party's eventual nominee, Romney.
Romney also looked at Christie as a possible running mate, but the New Jersey governor apparently had little interest in being No. 2 on the ticket. Christie backed Romney nearly a year ago, after announcing he wasn’t getting in the race.
It was Christie’s keynote address at the GOP convention that sparked new speculation he was eyeing a future presidential bid when he didn’t mention Romney until the final third of his speech, focusing instead on his own personal story.
Trips to support candidates in key early voting states like Iowa, as well as Republican strongholds like Utah, only further fuel talk that Christie is already setting his sights on 2016.
“It’s certainly plausible that he’s starting,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. “It’s a no-lose situation for him. He can get out and support the party and build up political capital just in case.”
If Romney loses in November, Scala said Christie can count on a place on the shortlist of GOP candidates. Campaigning for other Republicans now would also make it easier to raise money for a presidential race later, he said.
“Getting to know Romney donors and supporters would be useful for Chris Christie,” Scala said. “This is the kind of thing that invites speculation about his future plans. And that’s just the way he likes it.”
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Christie may be looking at Utah as a source of campaign funds should he run for president.
“Just as we’ve seen with Mitt Romney, if you’re a Republican, Utah is a good place to raise money,” Burbank said, noting it's always easier for a candidate to ask for cash once they've made a connection.
Romney, a Mormon credited with turning around the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, has collected more than $5.7 million in Utah so far this election.
A spokesman for the New Jersey state GOP, Douglas Mayer, said Christie “is proud to support numerous Republicans across the country. It’s campaign season.”
That means Christie hits the road “when his schedule allows it.” Some weeks he stays put, Mayer said, and other weeks he makes several trips to campaign, often for GOP gubernatorial candidates as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
From Utah, the New Jersey governor will head to Missouri for a fundraiser and then a rally for GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence.
Christie spent Thursday in Iowa, raising money for both a congressional candidate and a political action committee. He was in Washington, D.C. Friday to speak at a fundraising event for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
He and Herbert got to know each other through the Republican Governors Association. In Tampa, Christie spoke at a Utah delegation brunch at Herbert’s request. Unlike his appearance in Utah Saturday, that speech by Christie was closed to reporters.
Herbert's Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, retired Army general Peter Cooke, held what his campaign called an "un-fundraiser" at his downtown office Saturday, selling chili and scones for $15 a plate.
A spokeswoman for Cooke's campaign, Jan Hemming, said "the goal is not to raise money but to have a good time."