TRENTON, N.J. — As Gov. Chris Christie travels the country to support Republicans running for governor, he also is charting a course that could bear on his ability to seek the party's nomination for president in 2016.
Christie has traveled to 21 states as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — a tally that will grow to 26 by the end of the month, according to the RGA.
Among the states Christie has visited are several with early primaries and caucuses that will be key to the 2016 contest, including Iowa and New Hampshire — trips that drew wide media attention — and South Carolina, where Christie is expected to head in September.
The New Jersey governor, who has acknowledged he is weighing a run for president, has said his travels are dictated by his duties as RGA chairman, not political ambitions. But political observers say Christie benefits from the RGA role by building a presence in the early voting states, as well as boosting his national profile and showcasing his abilities as a fund-raiser.
The RGA announced in July that it had raised a record $60 million under Christie and had an unprecedented $70 million cash on hand heading into the 2014 election cycle.
For Christie — whose administration was ensnared earlier this year in a scandal over apparent politically motivated traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge — the RGA role presents an opportunity "to try to at least start calming the nerves of people who think he's no longer a viable candidate," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
At the same time, the RGA role, while high-profile, has rarely proven itself a path to the White House. Few who have led the Republican or Democratic governor associations have gone on to become president, with exceptions in Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
"History would show this is the fool's gold of presidential politics," said Dave Carney, a political strategist who advised Perry's 2012 campaign. Perry resigned as RGA chairman after announcing his candidacy in 2011. "It looks a lot better on paper than it does in reality."
Traveling the country on the behalf of other candidates "takes you away from raising your own money, building your own ideas," Carney said.
It also takes Christie out of New Jersey, where the governor's trips — he's left the state at least 36 days this year on official RGA business — earn mixed reviews, mostly along party lines.
A majority of New Jersey voters — 57 percent, including 75 percent of Republicans — say Christie's travel has not impacted his duties in New Jersey, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll released Tuesday. But more than a third say the trips have hurt his ability to govern.
While the RGA position is seen as a way for a prospective candidate to rack up political chits and form relationships with candidates who, once elected, could later support a presidential campaign, Carney said that strategy doesn't always translate into reality: Candidates who lose, he said, grouse that the RGA should have done more, while those who win tend to credit themselves, rather than the group that spent money on their behalf.
There's also the delicate work of distributing RGA resources, with decisions that risk angering some in the party. "Sometimes it's sort of like Animal Farm," Carney said, referring to George Orwell's satirical novel. "All the candidates are equal, but some are more equal than others."
Christie stirred controversy last month when he said the RGA was unlikely to devote resources to the campaign of New York gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino, who has trailed Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo by 24 to 32 points in recent polls.
"We don't pay for landslides, and we don't invest in lost causes," Christie said.
Astorino responded by suggesting Christie step down as RGA chairman and lined up support from potential 2016 challengers to Christie, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will host an October fund-raiser on Astorino's behalf, a spokesman for Astorino said. The New York Post on Monday first reported plans for the fund-raiser.
Decisions on the RGA's involvement in races hinge on "many variables," and don't involve only Christie, said Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA. Along with Christie, the RGA's vice chairman — Jindal — executive committee, and staff "all discuss and provide options to consider in all of our races," Thompson said.
The executive committee includes nine Republican governors, among them several viewed as possible presidential contenders — including Perry and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — as well as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Under Christie, the RGA also has gotten involved in contested primaries. In June, Christie traveled to New Hampshire, home to the first presidential primary, and endorsed businessman Walt Havenstein while bypassing primary challenger Andrew Hemingway, an entrepreneur and conservative activist.
The endorsement has "a tremendous amount of risk associated with it — alienating conservative Republicans, first and foremost," said Mike Dennehy, a political strategist in New Hampshire who is an adviser to a political action committee affiliated with Perry.
But supporting Havenstein also could be "a huge benefit" for Christie if it allows him to draw on Havenstein's supporters in a potential 2016 bid, Dennehy said. Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain have followed Christie's lead in endorsing Havenstein.
Havenstein has trailed Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan by margins of 15 and 26 points in recent polls. In Iowa, where Christie traveled in July, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has led Democrat Jack Hatch by 11 to 15 points in polls.
Like New Hampshire — which Christie visited a second time in July — Iowa is important to presidential candidates: It hosts the first caucuses.
Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said he expects in November that "we're going to see a stronger correlation between states [Christie]'s been to and their role in 2016 than how competitive" the gubernatorial races were in those states.
Mike DuHaime, an adviser to Christie who is a consultant to the RGA, noted the scope of Christie's travel, which "has taken him to states that cross the entire political spectrum — from traditionally Democrat states like Maine and Illinois to more conservative states like Arkansas and Kansas. All present great opportunities for the RGA this year."
As a New Jersey Republican perceived by some as moderate on social issues, Christie needs to prove he can be popular in the conservative South, said Zelizer, of Princeton University.
Christie needs to "rebuild the case he is someone who can compete for the presidency," Zelizer said. "He needs to get to as many states as possible."