TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn't joining the GOP field running for president in 2012, but he may have a hand in shaping the race from the sidelines.
His network of admirers and big-money donors and his continued popularity would make his endorsement a coveted campaign contribution, operatives say.
"Christie's endorsement will be aggressively sought after," said Phil Musser, a senior adviser for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's presidential campaign this year and former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
"First, he's now got a national following at the grass-roots and establishment level," Musser said. "Second, the financial network in New Jersey, if corralled, can produce millions. And, finally, he'd be a terrific surrogate for any campaign."
If some candidates were annoyed that Christie sucked up the media spotlight for a week as he reconsidered, Christie said they weren't telling him so.
"I think of bunch of the people who are candidates wouldn't say something like that because they want me to think kindly of them," Christie said Tuesday. "Even if they were annoyed, I think they withheld their fire."
"This was not something I stoked," he said of speculation about a possible presidential campaign. "This was something I kept trying to push off, but eventually it became something more than I could push off."
Ultimately, Christie decided it wasn't his time. But he said he would use his role as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association to work with governors across the country in the coming years and would work to support whoever becomes the 2012 GOP nominee.
The line of compliments from candidates had already begun to form Tuesday.
"We should all learn from the model of fiscal discipline and reform Gov. Christie has put in place in New Jersey," Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman said.
Christie's star rose quickly after he defeated Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine in 2009 in liberal-learning New Jersey. He won praise in his party for his budget cutting and employee benefit reforms, and for taking on the powerful teachers unions and shaking up the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
His brash tell-it-like-it-is style also made him a YouTube hit and a campaign trail favorite.
Besides those attributes, candidates also know that where Christie goes, cameras follow. The media scrum that arrived for his announcement Tuesday was so large that the line to get into his office stretched outside the front doors of the Statehouse and some were turned away because there was no room left. On-air personalities from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" were among the throng.
The last time that many media members packed into the New Jersey governor's office was for then-Gov. Jim McGreevey's "I'm a gay American" speech.
A charismatic speaker, Christie has spent the last two election cycles campaigning for Republicans around the country, including Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who won a close race against incumbent Ted Strickland, and Meg Whitman, who lost the California governor's race. He has also spent time working donors, many of whom were so enamored they publicly encouraged him to run for the White House.
Whitman, the new CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., is among those with deep pockets and an affection for Christie, whom she hosted at her home last week for a fundraiser.
Billionaire oil tycoons Charles and David Koch invited Christie to give the keynote speech at their annual invitation-only retreat in Colorado in June. A month before, energy company executive Bruce Rastetter traveled to New Jersey to try to persuade him to run because he had been impressed by Christie at a fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's campaign. Rastetter was Branstad's top fundraiser in 2010.
The Home Depot co-founder and billionaire Ken Langone also tried to get Christie to run. Hours after Christie said he was out for 2012, Langone announced he was backing Mitt Romney.
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