By David Ingram and Hilary Russ
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The political alliance sealed on Friday between Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was more than a decade in the making, the culmination of the two men's repeatedly crossing paths.
Christie, a former rival for the Republican nomination for president, endorsed Trump at a surprise news conference in Fort Worth, Texas, giving the front-runner a lift ahead of the March 1 Super Tuesday nominating contests.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, told reporters his endorsement was not part of any deal that would land him a position, such as U.S. attorney general, in a possible Trump administration.
Trump, 69, and Christie, 53, have been friendly dinner companions and have operated professionally in the same state. Christie has been one of New Jersey's top political figures since 2001 and Trump has been a major employer and real-estate developer in the state beginning in the 1980s when he began to run casinos in Atlantic City, the New Jersey seaside resort that had fallen on hard times and was being remade as a sort of Las Vegas of the East Coast.
The close geographic ties differentiate Christie from politicians who operate farther from Trump's base in New York City, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
"They were bound to cross paths and come to know each other," Dworkin said.
Trump sat in the front pew at a Catholic Mass celebrating Christie's swearing-in for his first term as New Jersey's governor in January 2010.
"He's going to be a great governor, which New Jersey could use. He will go down as the best governor there is," Trump told reporters, according to the Press of Atlantic City.
Trump's sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, a federal appeals court judge, introduced the two in 2002, according to The Record of Bergen County. Christie was named the state's chief federal prosecutor in 2001 by President George W. Bush.
The Trumps and the Christies have often had dinner together, where Trump would do all the talking, according to "American Governor," a Christie biography written by Matt Katz and published in January. Christie attended Trump's 2005 wedding, to his current wife, Melania, where Christie met Bill and Hillary Clinton, according to the book.
The Christie-Trump relationship, "if anything, would be socializing with big important people. They're both collectors," said Rutgers University senior policy fellow Marc Pfeiffer.
As Christie sought to build his national profile, Trump helped. Trump gave $250,000 to the Republican Governors Association in 2014 when Christie was its head, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that maintains a database of political donations.
Representatives of Trump's casinos lobbied Christie as early as 1996 when Christie was a little-own local officeholder in Morris County, according to the Star-Ledger. The newspaper reported at the time that the county board of freeholders was considering a highway project that would affect Trump's casinos in Atlantic City.
Trump founded Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc and ran casinos in Atlantic City beginning in the 1980s. He resigned as chairman before the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, about a year before Christie became governor and took on a larger role in the city's struggles.
Trump Entertainment Resorts emerged from Chapter 11 reorganization in July 2010, with Trump acquiring a smaller stake in the company. It now runs one Atlantic City casino, the Trump Taj Mahal.
Christie's biggest push for development in Atlantic City was to support the Revel casino project. The Revel opened in 2012, well after Trump had reduced his holdings in Atlantic City. It closed in 2014.
Trump's presence in New Jersey could extend well beyond his career or friendship with Christie. According to media reports, he plans to be buried in the state at a private cemetery at one of his golf courses after he dies.
(Reporting by David Ingram and Hilary Russ in New York; Additional reporting by Megan Davies and Jarrett Renshaw in New York and Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Leslie Adler)