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Chris Christie presses on in Iowa despite 'uphill battle'

Chris Christie has already visited Iowa four times this year, and he is beginning to build his team there
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks down while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Md., Feb. 26, 2015. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks down while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Md., Feb. 26, 2015.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is polling terribly in Iowa. His most recent visit to the state that holds the critical first-in-the-nation caucuses was overshadowed by hecklers. His centrist political profile is largely at odds with the social conservatives who typically dominate the state's GOP caucuses. And some members of a powerful group of Hawkeye State activists and donors -- who in 2011 jumped on a plane to the Garden State in order to urge the governor to run for president in 2012 -- aren't exactly psyched about Christie's presidential prospects.

But despite the challenges, Christie is moving full steam ahead in Iowa.

RELATED: Christie allies launch super PAC 'America Leads'

Christie has already visited the state four times this year, and he is beginning to build his team there, recently bagging the support of two influential GOP operatives – both of whom landed spots on The Des Moines Register’s list of the “50 most wanted Republicans.” Jeff Boeyink, Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad’s former chief of staff who also served as the state’s GOP executive director, and Phil Valenziano, the former political director for Branstad’s re-election campaign who was Mitt Romney’s Iowa field director, have agreed to sign on with Christie.

Boeyink praised Valenziano’s help to msnbc, saying the Iowan—who has New Jersey roots—“has solid relationships with key Republicans in every county in the state and that will open doors for Gov. Christie in ways that will be difficult for other candidates to match.” The Des Moines Register has called Valenziano – who did not respond to a request for comment -- a “field-organizing pit bull.”

During his visits to Iowa, Christie has stuck to several themes – opposing federal overreach, speaking out against Obama’s response to the economy, promoting his anti-abortion views (an issue that is important to the state’s social conservative caucus goers) and stressing his bold, blunt style.

At the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, Christie told the crowd, “You’ll always know what I believe, and you’ll always know where I stand.” When two protesters who identified themselves as New Jersey residents stood up at an agricultural summit in Des Moines last weekend to rail against Christie's handling of Hurricane Sandy, the governor wasn’t rattled. “I’m glad to see New Jersey has come,” he said, adding, “How great is that? Great to have you here. And I think you understand that I’ll deal with you the same way here as I deal with you in New Jersey.” The protesters were eventually removed.

While the quip went over well with the crowd, it was one of the dominating headlines to come out of the summit – and a reminder that Christie faces rough waters at home with a sputtering economy and low approval ratings.

RELATED: Chris Christie confronts heckler in Iowa

Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University in Iowa, said Christie—while he has a “tremendous personality and is always entertaining” --  faces an “uphill battle” in the state. The narrative that Christie uses as a sales pitch -- that he won the governorship twice in a blue-leaning state -- “is the very thing that makes him suspicious among the hard-lined activists who dominate the caucuses,” Goldford said.

Goldford added that the emerging 2016 GOP field is simply more competitive than it was in 2012 – with potential candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin all occupying the same establishment spot that Christie hopes to fill.

According to a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg poll from last month, just 4% of likely GOP caucus goers said Christie was their first choice for president. And several in a group of Iowa activists who all but begged Christie to run in 2012 aren’t exactly chomping at the bit anymore.

“A lot has happened in the last four years. There are a lot of people who have come into the race that weren’t there the last time, making it a very competitive field. I want to sit back and see who catches fire before I decide," Gary Kirke, an Iowa businessman and big time GOP donor who was part of the effort to draft Christie in 2012, told msnbc.

Kirke also said the scandal known as “Bridgegate” – in which some of Christie’s closest allies and staffers closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013, seemingly for political retribution -- did him no favors, even though Christie has denied any prior knowledge of the plot. Kirke also said Christie’s bold style could now be a liability, saying he sometimes “rubs people wrong and puts his foot in his mouth sometimes.”

Cam Sutton, a retired Iowa insurance executive who also made that Christie-recruiting trip in 2011, has expressed similar reservations. Bruce Rastetter, another influential Iowa Republican who made the recruiting trip (and who moderated the recent agricultural summit), has also said he hasn’t made a decision this time around.

Still, as Goldford argued, winning the Iowa caucuses isn’t necessarily about coming in first place. “It’s about doing better than expected,” he said. Take, for example, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who finished in fourth place in 2008 before sealing the Republican nomination that year. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 narrowly edged out that year's eventual nominee, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Even finishing in the top three in Iowa would deemed as a success for Christie, said Goldford.

RELATED: Chris Christie under conservative fire

That may mean a lot more trips to Iowa, said Tim Hagle, an associate professor at the University of Iowa. "Christie has to get around and talk to folks, look them in the eye and shake their hand. They want to know he's legitimate," he said. Hagle added, Christie has less name recognition in the state compared to say, Jeb Bush. Goldford said Christie must do better reaching out to Christian conservatives, an important voting block in the state. "Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker are playing that conservative Christian card much better than Christie is playing it at this point," he said.

Christie’s chief political aide, Mike DuHaime, did not respond to requests for comments about the governor’s upcoming schedule in Iowa.

The governor has also been spending time in the early voting states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, recently meeting with potential donors at an event in Jupiter hosted by Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and a Christie supporter. The governor has also created a super political action committee that will help him raise unlimited amounts of cash should he jump into the race.

Christie has nonetheless had a rough couple of months. A trip to England was overshadowed by his controversial remarks about vaccinations, a New York Times report detailed his questionable luxury trips and donors appear to be turning away from the Republican and toward Jeb Bush.

According to the latest average of polling data surrounding the GOP 2016 presidential nomination compiled by Real Clear Politics, Christie is in sixth place with 6.4% support, trailing behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (16.2%), Jeb Bush (15.8%), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (11.6%), retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (10.6%) and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (8.2%).