COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A day after delivering a State of the State address widely seen as an informal kick-off to a potential campaign for president, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie traveled to South Carolina on Wednesday to court potential donors in the early-voting state.
His message? Stay tuned.
Christie spent the morning at the swearing-in of incumbent Gov. Nikki Haley, part of an ongoing cross-country victory tour of GOP governors taking office, capping off his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Christie was the only potential 2016 candidate in attendance at the chilly ceremony on the statehouse steps and a private luncheon at the governor's mansion.
Later, Christie headlined a meet-and-greet event, spending two hours mingling with a crowd that included pastors of evangelical churches, legislators, fundraisers and business leaders.
"I think it's pretty clear that Gov. Christie has plans over the next year to-year-and-a-half. That was the sense among everyone in the room," said Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, which co-hosted the Christie event. "He said he's got eight more days of his official RGA activities, but stay tuned."
Christie's team is in the early stages of putting together a political action committee to begin raising and spending money, according to several Republican donors who are being aggressively courted. The PAC is expected to be announced as early as the end of the month.
Phil Cox, the former executive director Republican Governors Association who grew close with Christie and his team during the governor's tenure as chair of the organization, is helping lay the groundwork for a campaign-in-waiting at the political action committee, several donors said. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Christie's internal moves by name.
The political committee will raise cash to cover Christie's trips to early nominating states in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as be home to the data Christie's team will start collecting about potential supporters. Should Christie enter the presidential race as expected, the committee could easily be transformed into a campaign.
Cox's involvement suggests a serious campaign is coming together. He is one of the most sought-after operatives after his stint at the RGA and the victories the committee logged on behalf of GOP governors.
Christie and his aides maintain his timeline hasn't been affected by moves from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Christie suggested that he would move forward not long after Jan. 21, when he travels to Maryland to celebrate Gov.-elect Larry Hogan's inauguration, several people attending the South Carolina event said.
Leighton Lord, a lawyer from South Carolina who went to college with Christie and co-hosted the event at his law firm, said that Christie's remarks to the group of more than 75 people focused on his governing philosophy. He said Christie steered clear of social issues, and instead stressed the need for candidates to provide a vision for the future if they want to get elected.
Christie, Lord said, spoke of the need to be inclusive and to work with people, even if they disagree, driving home the message that "you've just got to talk to people" to get things done. He also stressed RGA wins in states like Maryland, where Republicans weren't expected to claim the governor's mansion.
Christie's visit suggests that he is already looking to build support in South Carolina, where he might be expected to have a difficult time appealing to the more conservative voters who tend to dominate the state's primary. But Lord argued that Christie's message would resonate with South Carolina voters who speak their minds and aren't shy about expressing their views.
"I think he's plenty conservative," Lord said before the governor's visit, adding that he hoped Christie would ultimately choose to run. "I think he'd be a great president," he said.
Colvin reported from Newark, New Jersey. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington and Seanna Adcox Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.