By Gabriel Debenedetti
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Jumping in while potential rivals Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney are absent, Chris Christie will try to grab the spotlight in Iowa on Saturday at the first big gathering of likely 2016 Republican presidential contenders.
At the Iowa Freedom Summit hosted by Republican Rep. Steve King, the New Jersey governor will wade into a potentially hostile crowd of influential activists who largely eye him with distrust for his stewardship of a liberal state, his silence on immigration and the "Bridgegate" scandal.
The summit will unofficially kick off the battle for the powerful state's support, and could be a significant moment for a Christie campaign that would need grassroots conservatives alongside its mainstream donor base.
A warm reception could help Christie regain momentum after weeks of headlines about Bush and Romney, and blunt the perception that his brash style would antagonize Iowa Republicans.
"Making the effort to be there in person does go a long way," said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. "In a way it helps cut into some negative perceptions that are out there about him."
Other likely 2016 hopefuls expected include former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard Co chief executive Carly Fiorina, none of whom have declared their candidacy.
Christie has struggled to stay relevant as former Florida governor Bush and 2012 nominee Romney grabbed the recent buzz from operatives and donors aligned with the party's establishment. But neither accepted invitations to appear on Saturday, leaving Christie as the face of the party's pragmatic, business-friendly wing.
"Chris just can't hang on the establishment mantle, the field's getting crowded," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, noting that Christie speaks about his pro-life beliefs in a compelling way for social conservatives.
"If he is going to shed the (Republican in name only) label, he is going to have to mingle with Republicans of all stripes."
Christie will also likely be forced to address immigration, a hot-button issue with hardliners like King. Republicans have struggled to balance strong opposition to immigration reforms within the party while courting the growing Hispanic population.
Even though Christie's political star has faded after the early 2014 scandal over lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, seen as punishment for a local mayor's failure to endorse him, some donors who like Bush or Romney remain open to him.
Christie, who has adamantly denied knowing about the "Bridgegate" incident or being involved, is expected to start a political committee by spring, allowing him to communicate directly with supporters. But with some donors trying to avoid a free-for-all between Christie, Romney and Bush, he faces an uphill fight.
Romney and Bush top preliminary national polls, but others like Huckabee are also popular in conservative Iowa. Christie visited the state frequently while campaigning for Republicans in 2014.
"You have to get those Iowa voters one at a time," said veteran Republican operative Charlie Black.
(Editing by John Whitesides and Christian Plumb)