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As Christie struggles in New Jersey, he heads to Iowa

The 2016 hopeful is forging ties with Republicans across the country — while hoping they won't notice his struggles at home.
Chris Christie stands during a press conference on Sept. 24, 2014 at 7 World Trade Center in New York.
Chris Christie stands during a press conference on Sept. 24, 2014 at 7 World Trade Center in New York.

When Chris Christie cruised to a landslide re-election win as governor of deep-blue New Jersey, it bolstered his claim to bipartisan appeal — a key asset in a potential presidential bid. But with 2016 now on the horizon, worrisome signs are emerging for Christie in his home state, even as he barnstorms the country building his political brand. 

The governor’s approval rating among Garden State voters is down to 46%, a three-year low, according to a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this week. The survey found New Jerseyans prefer Hillary Clinton — the early front-runner among 2016 presidential candidates — over their own governor by a 50-to-40% margin.

RELATED: New Jersey voters prefer Hillary Clinton over Chris Christie

That has left Christie trying to pull off a tough balancing act: selling himself to national Republicans (he'll be in Iowa Friday) as the man who can win over independents with his blunt-spoken charm, while hoping they won't notice his struggles at home. 

The governor has seemed to turn the page on the “Bridgegate” scandal, which earlier this year seemed likely to derail any shot at higher office. But it’s still been a rocky year. Christie has grappled with a controversial pension reform plan, seen massive layoffs in  Atlantic City after the failure of his plan to revive the city's economy, and vetoed a gun control bill — a popular cause in New Jersey. Last month, the state’s credit rating was cut again — the state’s eighth such downgrade since Christie took office in 2010.

But none of that has stopped the governor from building his national profile.

As chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, Christie has had ample opportunity to tour the country, meet GOP activists and donors, and build intra-party support in important states. Just this week, he campaigned with Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gov. John Kasich in Ohio.

Christie has visited more than two dozen states in the last year. But his focus on Iowa — which hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, of course — is hard to ignore.  He'll be in the Hawkeye State Friday to attend a rally with Gov. Terry Branstad, and will return later in October for a Branstad fundraiser — his third appearance in the state in four months.

Polls show Branstad is likely to coast to victory.

“The last thing Gov. Branstad needs is help for this election. [Christie’s visits] are a guise to help Branstad, but he’s obviously coming out to help himself,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines.

Unlike another early voting state, New Hampshire, which is filled with moderate and independent voters, Iowa Republicans tend to choose more conservative candidates. But University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle said Christie’s Iowa-palooza is wise. 

“Regardless of where you are ideologically, you want to come in, start meeting people, find out who the activists are and do some favors.," Hagle said. "Those are the folks that could help you when it comes to a presidential run.”

RELATED:  GOP urges supporters to vote early but fights to cut early voting

Hagle also said a Christie win isn’t out the question, pointing to 2012 when far-right candidates divided the vote in the caucuses, allowing moderate Mitt Romney to finish in a very, very close second to Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator.

Christie’s office did not respond to request for comment. The governor has said he intends to make a decision on whether or not he’ll run for the nation’s highest office early next year.

Christie, however, certainly seems to be talking the talk. The governor was criticized by his party over his embrace — literally and figuratively — of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and shortly before the presidential election in 2012. Now he's beefing up the anti-Obama rhetoric, especially on issues of foreign policy, a weakness in his resumé.

Over the summer Christie told a Colorado crowd that Obama’s refusal to visit the Mexico border in light of the refugee crisis there was an indication of his “unwillingness to lead.” Earlier this week, he criticized Obama for saying the U.S. intelligence community had underestimated the threat by the terrorist group known as ISIS.

The governor has looked to beef up his foreign policy credentials in other ways as well. During his Mexico trip last month, he met with the country’s president Enrique Pena Nieto. Last weekend, he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Manhattan.

Christie also looks like a man with his eye on higher office. He appears slimmer since his lap band surgery last year, telling CBS “This Morning” host Gayle King that he lost “a lot” of weight, although he refused to disclose just how much. 

And so far, his woes at home don't seem to be affecting his national poll numbers. According to the Real Clear Politics average of 2016 polling data, Christie is  leading—albeit, barely—the crowded potential GOP field. He accrued 11.5% of support, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in second with 10.8%.