NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has taken his firmest step yet toward running for president, launching an organization that allows him to raise money for a potential 2016 campaign.
Opening the political action committee allows Christie to begin to hire staffers, build the foundations of a campaign operation and travel across the country as he weighs a final decision on a run. He's not expected to announce a final decision until spring.
The organization, called Leadership Matters for America, was widely expected and comes not long after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced in December a similar organization. Bush's move kicked off an aggressive race to lock down establishment donors and may have drawn 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney into the race.
Christie was named the new group's honorary chairman. A mission statement on the organization's website echoes themes that Christie has focused in recent speeches, including remarks on Saturday in Iowa to conservative activists.
"America has been a nation that has always controlled events and yet today events control us. Why? Because leadership matters," the mission statement reads.
Asked what the launch said about his presidential aspirations at a storm briefing in Newark Monday, Christie appeared to distance himself from the effort.
"It says that there are a group of people who want to be supportive of me continuing to look at the problems in the country. And so I'm happy that they want to do that, I'm honored that they've asked me to be the honorary chair of it and it'll proceed as it proceeds and we'll see. But nothing more than that," he said, referring another question directly to the committee.
Christie is expected to hit the fundraising circuit soon, with events in big money states like New York, Connecticut, Florida and California.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has been in the GOP's presidential discussion since 2012, when he passed on the race and was later considered by Romney as a potential running mate.
He's proven himself as a capable fundraiser as chair of the Republican Governors Association, but is still hampered by the pending federal investigation into accusations that former staff members and appointees created traffic jams as political payback against the Democratic mayor of a New York suburb by blocking access lanes to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
In the past several months, Christie has courted donors, convened late-night briefing sessions on foreign policy and made repeated visits to early-voting states.
His PAC's early hires include fundraisers and operators with presidential campaign experience.
Ray Washburne, who recently stepped down from his post as finance chair of the Republican National Committee, will serve the same roll for the Christie PAC. Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association while Christie was chair last year will be a senior adviser, as will Christie's longtime political hand, Mike DuHaime. Cam Henderson, who has worked on the state's Superstorm Sandy rebuilding effort, will serve as finance director, while James Garcia, Romney's national field director in 2012, will be political director. Paige Hahn, the RGA's outgoing finance director, will play a role on the finance team.
Matt Mowers, a former Christie aide who is stepping down from his job as executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party at the end of the month, will work in that early-voting state, while Phil Valenziano, who served as political director for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad re-election campaign, will help lead Christie's team there.
Paperwork for the group was filed on Friday with the Federal Election Commission, DuHaime said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that the PAC was created.
Associated Press writer Dave Porter contributed to this report.