NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Four years ago, seven big-money donors and leading Republican activists from Iowa loaded into a private plane and headed to New Jersey for an urgent meeting with Chris Christie. Their message: Run, Chris, run.
The group from the lead-off caucus state failed in that mission to persuade the brash New Jersey governor to jump into the 2012 race for president. This time around, Christie's White House ambitions no longer appear to be an issue. But those once-eager Iowans aren't as keen to throw their support his way.
"It's a brand new ballgame," says donor Gary Kirke. "There's a lot more people in the race, and a lot has happened since then."
Of the seven who made the May 2011 trip to meet with Christie at the sprawling Drumthwacket governor's mansion, Kirke is the most outspoken. Three others are undecided about who they'll support in 2016, one doesn't plan to back any candidate, and two remain loyal Christie supporters.
The change in passions is a reflection of how the still-early race for the Republican nomination is dramatically different from four years ago, when eventual GOP pick Mitt Romney emerged from a large but relatively little-known field of candidates.
This time, Christie is competing for support against a list of potential candidates who include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and several members of the U.S. Senate, Florida's Marco Rubio and Kentucky's Rand Paul among them. The sense among some in Iowa is that Christie may have lost a unique opportunity in 2012, when the fight for dollars from establishment donors was far less intense.
"I think last time a lot of people looked at the field and saw holes in it," said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. "I think the other governors in the race really give him a hard go."
Kirke said that four years ago, Christie looked to be a rising star, with bravado and personality backed by solid conservative credentials. Since then, Kirke's opinion has changed. He pointed to Christie's embrace of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and to the George Washington Bridge scandal, which continues to hang over Christie.
"People just question, you know, he's the CEO of the state," said Kirke. "It makes you wonder about his leadership."
Kirke has yet to make his 2016 pick, but said he's excited about a number of potential candidates, including Walker and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. He even praised Donald Trump for his outsider appeal.
Christie political aide Mike DuHaime, also a senior adviser to the governor's recently launched political action committee, wouldn't discuss how much the PAC had raised so far or name specific donors, except to say that a number of those who tried to draft Christie into the 2012 race are involved today.
"I'm very confident that Christie will have all the resources he needs should he decide to move forward," DuHaime said.
Among the seven Iowans, both Bruce Rastetter, a major GOP donor who made his fortune in the pork and ethanol industries, and Michael Richards, the former chief medical officer of Iowa Health System, are now undecided about who they plan to back in 2016.
Rastetter has invited more than two-dozen potential contenders to an agricultural summit in Des Moines in March, and he said he was excited to welcome Christie — as well as the other potential candidates — but in no rush to take sides.
"I don't have any plans in the near future to endorse anyone," he said.
Cameron Sutton, a retired insurance executive, said that he is undecided, and that in his new role as Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst's state director, he's not in a position to endorse anyone. He told The Des Moines Register last year that he was "disappointed" in Christie, but he was more diplomatic this week, saying the race in 2016 is a "a whole different ball field" compared to 2012.
"You don't need to beg somebody to run this time around because I think we have some outstanding candidates to choose from," he said, adding that he didn't see that as a knock against Christie. "I see that just as a strong statement that there's really, really strong candidates on the docket."
An assistant to Denny Elwell, a real estate developer who was on the trip to New Jersey to draft Christie, said Elwell has not made any decisions about 2016 and was not commenting on the race. But two others on the flight are still Christie supporters.
"I'm still formally in the Christie camp. I don't think I've ever left the Christie camp," said Mikel Derby, who works for the state's transportation department, and hailed the New Jersey Republican as a "tremendous leader" who has plenty of support in the state.
And former Iowa state Sen. Jim Kersten said he's already volunteering for Christie and pointed to the team the governor is building in Iowa, led by well-respected operatives Phil Valenziano and Jeffrey Boeyink.
"We're hoping that he will move forward. And if he gets in, we will support him," Kersten said.
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