TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — In office just over a year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become quite the hot commodity to Republican presidential hopefuls.
They all want to kiss his ring.
"Let's judge the complete field once they all get in," Christie says, declining to publicly back any one White House aspirant even as a stream of them trek up the turnpike to pay respects to the top Republican in Trenton as the 2012 Republican nomination fight gets under way.
He's already hosted dinners at the governor's mansion in Princeton — for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour earlier this month and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in January. And those close to Christie say former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who on Monday took the first formal step toward seeking the party's nod, is scheduled to visit. Other aspirants are expected in the coming months.
Typically, candidates seek wisdom from GOP godfathers and guidance from governors in early primary voting states. At this early stage in the race, many White House hopefuls already have met privately with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and paid visits to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.
But a first-term governor from a state that's sometimes called "blue Jersey" for its left-leaning tendencies? Now that's different.
Christie, to be sure, is not your usual novice governor.
He vaulted to GOP rock star status in the November 2009 election when he soundly thumped Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and showed how a Republican can win a Democratic-tilting state.
Since then, the former federal prosecutor's efforts to fight excessive spending and curtail the power of Democratic-friendly unions have made him a national sensation within the GOP. His no-nonsense, commonsense style has resonated with a party looking to regain credibility with voters on fiscal matters.
Republicans have clamored for him to run for president next year. He insists he won't. But that doesn't mean he won't play a role in the 2012 election.
Should he endorse someone in the wide-open GOP field, Christie's backing would come with more than just a photo op. The former fundraiser for George W. Bush is known to be a skilled money man, one who could help any candidate bring in cash for a costly campaign.
He's already shown that lending his name can lead to donations; an advocacy group created by Republicans to support Christie's agenda raised $624,000 in six months, mostly from establishment Republicans and developers in New Jersey.
Despite the star power Christie would bring, no White House hopeful is seeking his public nod of approval so early in the year.
Two people who attended the dinners with Barbour and Romney said neither asked explicitly ask Christie for an endorsement. Instead, they said the meetings were a way for Christie to better "get to know" the candidates. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the meetings were considered private.
Christie isn't talking either, saying only this recently on CBS: "When the team that we're going to field gets in there, then I'll make my evaluation of them. And I don't think I've said anything uncharitable about any of them."
He did, however, give clues about what type of candidate he would embrace.
"You have to have unscripted moments. I mean you cannot be blow-dried and, you know, poll-tested and come out here. That's not what the American people want," he said on "Face the Nation."
"They want somebody who is going to speak straight to them. And they want to ask you questions, so they want unguarded moments. That's when they can really judge your character."
Aside from laying the groundwork for the eventual endorsement ask, the candidates also see the visits as a way to have a little of Christie's glow rub off on them — and to confirm that he's serious in his public denials of a run.
"They are just trying to burnish their own authenticity credentials by associating with him," said Matthew Dowd, a top strategist on President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. "It's positive aura that Gov. Christie has now established."
Christie, who got Romney's endorsement in his 2009 primary, has repeatedly spurned calls to run for president in 2012. He says he's not ready.
He also has said he has no interest in becoming someone's vice president, noting that his strong personality would make for a tough dynamic.
Not that anyone is asking — yet.