DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — New Jersey's Chris Christie insists it's his role as Republican Governors Association chairman that's bringing him to Iowa this week, to raise money for other politicians, including Gov. Terry Branstad, a five-term incumbent with lots of campaign cash already.
Iowa, of course, is an important early-voting state in the presidential nominating calendar. But Christie told The Associated Press, "I'm not gearing up to run up for president. I'm gearing up to win as many governor's races as I can this November and then we'll make decisions about running for president after that."
Branstad, for one, doesn't need Christie's fundraising help. Branstad is sitting on $4 million in his campaign account and has outraised his little-known Democratic challenger by 10-to-1 this year.
In truth, there's much more to Christie's scheduled visit Thursday for the embattled governor and potential 2016 White House contender, and for Iowa.
For Christie, the trip will mark a return to the type of public politics for which he was so well known before allegations of a political payback scandal at home enveloped him and prompted a self-imposed lower public profile.
Christie's full day of events holds the promise of bringing wide attention to Iowa's 2016 presidential caucuses, so central to the state's national identity.
For Christie, the visit should convey a clear message to activists and donors that he considers himself politically viable, even amid continuing investigations in New Jersey.
"What helps him the most is the fact that he's doing a good job as chairman of the RGA, keeping his nose to that," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican national committeeman and adviser to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. "That's what helps him later on."
Allegations in January that members of Christie's administration ordered traffic lanes to be closed on the George Washington Bridge linking New Jersey and New York undermined what had been a triumphant re-election in November and his ascension in December to the RGA post.
The voluble Christie had until recently kept an unusually lower profile while he traveled the country raising tens of millions for the RGA.
Last month he began to re-emerge, visiting New Hampshire, the first-voting presidential primary state. He plans to return later this month.
But Wednesday, he said during an interview that aired on CNBC that he was far from decided about 2016.
"I'm going to be very deliberative about this," he said. "It's pretty nice to be asked. It's enormously flattering. But being flattered isn't enough of a reason to run."
Christie's busy day in Iowa was to include fundraisers for Iowa GOP officials, a stop at a Cedar Rapids restaurant and a state fair-type rally in the evening in Davenport.
Back home, however, his incoming chief of staff, Regina Egea, was to testify before a legislative committee about the bridge scandal.
Branstad, speaking in general about that issue, said, "Unless something else comes out we're not aware of, I don't think that's what's going to be a significant issue going forward."
Branstad was quick to praise other governors considering 2016 candidacies, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who hosted a fundraiser for him in Florida in May, and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, Texas' Rick Perry and Wisconsin's Scott Walker. All but Bush have visited Iowa in the past 18 months.
With roughly 18 months more until Iowa's 2016 caucuses, the early movements have passed without much fanfare.
That could change Thursday, given that more than 50 reporters and news media representatives had requested credentials to cover Christie's visit.
Perry and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have visited Iowa most often. Paul has three workers in place, while no others have full-time operatives in the state yet.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee, have been to Iowa at least twice over that period.
After Thursday, Bush will be the only better-known Republican not to have visited Iowa since the 2012 election. He is hosting a fundraiser in Florida for Iowa's GOP Senate nominee, Joni Ernst, in September.
In 2011, some Iowa Republicans came to New Jersey and tried to recruit Christie for the 2012 presidential race. Renewable fuels entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter, who led that effort, said he will attend Christie's Thursday events, but is "considering a number of folks" for 2016.
Christie annoyed some conservatives in 2012 by embracing President Barack Obama during Obama's visit to New Jersey's storm-ravaged seashore. Also, some Iowa social conservatives reject Christie for supporting civil unions between same-sex couples.
Christie is the target this week of Internet ads that are attacking his judicial nominees as "liberal."
Branstad has worked to expand Iowa's Republican base beyond the socially and libertarian conservatives who have held sway recently, and that could bode well for Christie.
"There is more growth among younger activists in the pragmatic conservative camp," said a would-be supporter, John Stineman, 42, of West Des Moines.
Peoples reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.