DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Some of Iowa’s top Republican campaign contributors, unhappy with their choices in the developing presidential field, are venturing to New Jersey in hopes they can persuade first-term Gov. Chris Christie to run. The entreaty is the latest sign of dissatisfaction within the GOP over the crop of candidates competing for the chance to run against President Barack Obama in 2012.
Bruce Rastetter, an Iowa energy company executive, and a half-dozen other prominent Iowa GOP donors sought the meeting with Christie, the governor’s chief political adviser, Mike DuHaime, told The Associated Press. The get-together is set for the governor’s mansion in Princeton, N.J., on May 31.
The meeting speaks to what some Republicans nationally say is a lack of enthusiasm about the emerging roster of contenders. It’s also unusual because candidates typically court Iowans, who get the first say in presidential nominating contests, and not the other way around.
Christie, who was elected in 2009 and has drawn national attention for his tough talk and battles with Democrats, has explicitly and repeatedly rejected the idea of running for the White House. Yet that hasn’t deterred these Iowans.
“There isn’t anyone like Chris Christie on the national scene for Republicans,” Rastetter told the AP. “And so we believe that he, or someone like him, running for president is very important at this critical time in our country.”
It’s not the first instance this year of Iowa Republicans seeking to widen the 2012 field. A former state party chairman, Steve Grubbs, approached Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ top aide in Indianapolis last month. Daniels expects to say in a few weeks whether he will enter the race.
Nationally, Republican donors have encouraged ex-Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of former President George W. Bush, to reconsider his decision not to run. There’s also talk of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, as a possible entrant.
The mission by Rastetter is significant because it reflects the lengths to which some in Iowa will go to have more options as they choose a Republican to challenge Obama.
Rastetter represents a core GOP constituency in Iowa, business conservatives who favor nominees more identified with the philosophy of low taxes and limited government than with cultural issues. They’re similar to those activists who urged George W. Bush, then the Texas governor, to run in 2000.
The Iowa delegation to New Jersey includes developers and entrepreneurs essential to pro-business Republican Terry Branstad’s winning comeback campaign for governor last year.
Rastetter citied Christie’s “blunt, direct leadership style. You always know where he stands, what he means. You don’t need an interpreter.”
Rastetter met the governor at a Branstad fundraiser in Iowa last fall. “He clearly understands smaller government, less government spending, job creation, and how to create a better education system – certainly, all the things I and those accompanying me care about,” Rastetter said.
As in Iowa, some influential Republican donors nationally have said the 2012 field taking shape faces a variety of problems. Some candidates are closely associated with social issues such as gay rights that might now connect with independent voters. Others have been tainted by past campaign disappointments or personal foibles. Some simply lack the firepower to beat a skilled incumbent.
“There is a feeling that more candidates of greater renown should be in the contest,” said veteran GOP consultant Mary Matalin. “We all want Reagan, but need to remember that the source of Reagan’s power and popularity was his ideas and philosophy.”
Al Hoffman, who has been Jeb Bush’s top campaign fundraiser, said the pressure for Bush to run has ebbed in recent months as he has insisted he will not be a candidate.
“I have had enough heart-to-hearts with him to the point where he very politely has said, please don’t raise the issue again,” said Hoffman.
Should Indiana’s Daniels decide not to run, the pressure could increase on Christie.
Christie, a former U.S. attorney elected governor only 15 months ago, has been adamant and at times colorful in insisting that 2012 is off the table.
By agreeing to meet with Rastetter’s group, Christie is not hinting at a change in plans, DuHaime said. But the contacts could help him as he seeks to expand his leadership in the party, whether it’s influencing the 2012 nomination or preserving valuable contacts for the future.
“To the extent he cares about the party and the nominating process, knowing more people, like Bruce, that are influential in that process is a good thing,” DuHaime said. “This is simply part of getting to know other people who are going to be key players in the process.”
Christie wowed an audience of 800 Iowa Republicans last October when he headlined a Branstad fundraiser in a suburb of Des Moines, the Iowa capital. The former prosecutor’s tough-talking “put up or shut up” advice for the party impressed Rastetter, who was Branstad’s top fundraiser.
Branstad, who hasn’t endorsed a presidential candidate, has sung Christie’s praises for his get-tough approach to spending, especially public employee pensions and benefits. He said after hearing Christie speak in October, “I don’t think I’ve been that inspired by a speech since Ronald Reagan.”
It’s inspiration that Florida’s Hoffman said is lacking most of all in the 2012 hopefuls, and something their opponent has in plenty.
“Obama is the most masterful campaigner I’ve ever observed,” Hoffman said. “Our problem is we have a number of candidates who would make great presidents, but very few that make great candidates.”