- Associated Press - Thursday, July 17, 2014

DAVENPORT, Iowa (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spent the day traveling across Iowa on Thursday, bolstering Republican candidates and fueling speculation about his own political aspirations.

Christie was in town to campaign for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and other state candidates in his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association. He began his swing with two fundraisers, followed by a stop at a Cedar Rapids-area restaurant and a speech in front of a packed room of Branstad supporters at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds.

Iowa is a high-profile venue for Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, because it hosts the lead-off presidential caucuses. The visit also completes Christie’s return from a self-imposed political exile amid investigations into claims his staff intentionally clogged traffic near a bridge that connects New Jersey and New York City to punish a political adversary.

And while Christie insisted the trip had nothing to do with his own ambitions, he capped his daylong rush by touting spending and property tax cuts at home in New Jersey, which he attributed to vetoes and to working with Democrats.

“We have squeezed government to become smaller, smarter and more efficient with conservative principles we all stand for, whether it be the Republicans who live in New Jersey or Iowa, whether it be Florida or Georgia, or Ohio or Michigan or Wisconsin,” he told about 200 GOP activists in Davenport.

Earlier in the day, in the parking lot of MJ’s restaurant in Marion, Christie tried to keep the attention on Branstad, hailing him as “a role model for me and for others around the country about what public service is really supposed to be all about.”

Branstad returned the favor, praising Christie’s record, including his election margins and his repeated vetoes of proposed income tax hikes.

Christie glad-handed his way through the packed restaurant, posing for selfies, greeting babies and embracing excited fans. Many of those fans said they’d come after hearing on the news Christie would be there.

“I’m ready to vote for you for president of the United States of America!” exclaimed Kara Burmeister, who lives in Central City.

Jan Airy, from Alburnett, told Christie that voters in Iowa were waiting for him to run for president. Like others, Airy praised Christie’s straight-forward style, describing him as honest and unafraid to ruffle feathers.

“I just love him!” Airy said.

Christie said the attention was “incredibly flattering and gratifying” and said he planned to return to the early-voting state often.

“Every time I come here, folks are really just so kind to me and have the most generous things to say,” he said.

An NBC News/Marist Poll of Iowa voters released Thursday found one in three Republicans now has an unfavorable view of the governor after a barrage of bad news at home. But he brushed off the results, saying a comment he made earlier this year that Iowans “love me” remained true.

“Only a third?” he said. “That’s pretty good, man! That’s not bad. I’ll take it.”

As Christie was in Iowa, one of his aides, Regina Egea, was testifying in front of a legislative panel probing last year’s George Washington Bridge lane closures, which appeared to target Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat who didn’t support Christie for re-election.

Christie has called the lane closings “inexplicably stupid” and said he didn’t know about them beforehand.

While the scandal has hurt Christie in the polls, many of the people he encountered in Iowa brushed off the allegations, saying they had been blown out of proportion and the way he’d handled them served as proof of his political talents.

Earlier Thursday, Christie attended a fundraiser with Branstad at the home of a Des Moines-area businessman. Bruce Rastetter, who was among the Iowa Republicans who tried to recruit Christie to run in 2012, attended the morning event and said Christie set the tone of the conversation early, telling donors that his mission was on 2014 and electing GOP governors, while heaping praise on Branstad, who’s seeking his sixth term.

Christie has been traveling across the country as the GOP governors group’s chairman and has raised $60 million for it. But speculation about his presidential aspirations has become more rampant in recent weeks, as he has spoken publicly more often and visited early-voting states including New Hampshire.

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