As the nation's governors convened in Washington, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his team worked quietly Friday to right a nascent presidential bid struggling to build momentum.
The often-outspoken governor has no public appearances planned at the weekend gathering of the National Governors Association. Instead, he arranged an aggressive schedule of private meetings aimed at boosting his position among the major donors and Republican activists he'll need to fuel a successful White House campaign.
Aides and Christie loyalists tried to project a sense of calm in the face of news that many longtime backers, both in New Jersey and across the country, are signing on with other likely candidates — most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has assembled a mammoth fundraising operation far earlier than many expected.
Christie's team doesn't expect to match Bush's fundraising, but they're confident they will have the money needed to compete in the race. They've also started to frame Christie as an underdog fighting against Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, and his family's longstanding network of donors.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," said Ray Washburne, the finance chairman of Christie's political action committee and the former finance chief at the Republican National Committee. "I didn't leave the RNC thinking I was going to get on a dead horse."
While the weekend's official agenda features panel discussions on cybersecurity and education reform, among other topics, Christie was one of the state executives spending much of their time in Washington focused on the still-early presidential race.
That list includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who ducked out of an executive committee meeting Friday afternoon and avoided reporters who sought to ask about a surprise move by state lawmakers in Madison to call a vote on making Wisconsin a right-to-work state.
Walker had initially sought to avoid the issue, worried it could re-ignite the massive pro-union protests at the statehouse that followed his move in 2011 to strip most state employees of their collective bargaining rights. In a statement issued Friday, Walker said he would sign the right-to-work legislation if it passes.
Separately, his team released a short list of donors backing his prospective 2016 bid that includes Michael David Epstein, who sits on the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Brett McMahon, a top executive at a Washington-based concrete subcontractor. On Capitol Hill, Walker's team said senior aides for Wisconsin Reps. Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble were actively lobbying fellow members of Congress to support Walker.
Walker arrived in Washington on the rise, having impressed conservatives during a recent appearance in Iowa. But Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has long had a relationship with Christie, pushed back against the idea of writing off the New Jersey governor.
"It's way too premature to start making those kinds of judgments," Branstad said. "We're just starting and the caucuses aren't 'til February. That's a year from now."
Following criticism that he hasn't been spending enough time in New Jersey, Christie will deliver his annual budget address Tuesday and then hold a series of town hall meetings across New Jersey to sell his plans.
Also Friday, Christie aides released a list of more than 30 committed donors, including businessman Nick Loeb and Christie's brother, Todd. While long, it lacks many of the superstars who'd previously been cheerleaders, including hedge fund manager Paul Singer and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.
"There's no reason to try to match the amount of money that Jeb is going to raise. You don't have to do that. You simply have to have sufficient funds to compete," Virginia fundraiser Bobbie Kilberg, a major donor backing Christie who is hosting events to introduce him to others, said recently. "The most money does not necessarily turn into the most votes."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he would likely be among those Republican governors meeting privately with Christie this weekend. He said Christie has a "bigger-than-life personality" and that voters will want to hear from him as the campaign gets underway.
Bush would "be a player, too," Herbert said.
"That doesn't mean he's the anointed one, though," he said. "And it doesn't mean that Christie is not going to be able to get out there and do his own thing."
© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.