New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks with people, on Jan. 8, 2015 in Boston.
Steven Senne/AP

Christie to meet with South Carolina power players


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in the early primary state of South Carolina on Wednesday, and will meet with local legislators, business leaders, fundraisers and powerbrokers – the latest in a series of steps suggesting the governor is inching closer to a 2016 presidential run.

After Gov. Nikki Haley’s inauguration ceremony at 11 a.m.,  the governor is scheduled to attend a private meet and greet at 3:30 p.m. at the Columbia, South Carolina, law office of Leighton Lord, a friend of the governor’s from the University of Delaware.

The event comes a day after the governor delivered his annual State of the State address — a speech that was filled with  national innuendo. During his remarks, Christie criticized a “bloated national government,” called on both a “New Jersey and an American renewal” and spoke of his recent travels across the country.

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South Carolina Republican Party chairman Matt Moore told msnbc that about 100 people are expected to be at the meet and greet, noting Christie is just one of many potential candidates who have or are planning to visit the Palmetto State in the coming months. That includes Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, former Govs. Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, and sitting Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

“People make decisions here much more based on getting to know someone compared to what they’ve heard…For most of these people, it’s their first interaction with Gov. Christie,” said Moore.

South Carolina holds the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary and is considered a crucial state in the nominating process. According to sources familiar with who will be at Tuesday event, there will be several GOP heavy hitters, including Sen. Tim Scott, Mark Elam, director of state and local government relations in the state for Boeing, Mike Brenan, a BB&T bank executive and fundraiser, and former South Carolina Republican chair Barry Wynn.

Also in attendance will be pastors of two of the biggest Baptist churches in the area—Dick Lincoln of Shandon Baptist Church and Wendell Estep of First Baptist Columbia. There are about 15,000 members in those two congregations.

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Lincoln said “I haven’t made up my mind yet” on who he would support in 2016. “It’s just an opportunity to go and meet somebody who I think is interesting.”

Whether or not Christie’s bold and brash style and moderate record plays well in a state like South Carolina is yet to be seen.

David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said “People from New Jersey don’t do real great in South Carolina,” and that voters may be more inclined to support fellow southerners like Bush, Rubio and Cruz. Woodard added, “Christie is not perceived as being someone friendly on social issues like gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research. Even if he’s pro-life and conservative on social issues, he’ll have to get that message out.”

But Lord, who has known Christie for 30 years and served in student government with him, said there is a big appeal for someone like the governor, who he described as “authentic.” “A lot of folks are wondering [with potential candidates]  if they are looking a real person or a person that was created by political advisers. With Chris, you know he’s a real person. Some people might not like it but he’s not going to change.”

He added, “The Chris that got into arguments with teachers as a sophomore is the same guy engaging constituents in a town hall. He’s not afraid to engage anybody on anything and he’s very passionate about his views and what he thinks is right.”

Christie’s visit to South Carolina comes on the heels of news that Ray Washburne, the Republican National Committee’s finance chairman, will be stepping down this week and will reportedly join Christie’s likely presidential campaign.

The governor has said he would likely make a decision about whether or not to run for president sometime early this year. But many are speculating the Christie  could move up his timetable, especially as moderate Republicans like himself, including Bush and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, have indicated they may run too. The three could potentially end up vying for the same pool of mainstream cash and moderate GOP voters.

After the meet and greet, Christie is expected to attend Haley’s inaugural gala at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center at 7:30 p.m.