By JOHN DiSTASO, News Editor
BEDFORD – New Jersey Gov. and potential 2016 presidential hopeful Chris Christie returned to New Hampshire after a two-year absence Friday to praise candidate for governor Walt Havenstein as a proven businessman who can bring economic and job growth to the Granite State.
Christie visited in his role as chairman of the national Republican Governor’s Association, promising the RGA will back Havenstein “all the way to November.”
Havenstein, who is in a primary contest with Tea Party conservative businessman Andrew Hemingway, is the first GOP candidate for governor endorsed by Christie and the RGA this year.
Christie said it is unusual for the RGA to become involved in primaries, but said Havenstein is “an outstanding candidate in every way you would want one. So I made the decision that I was going to get involved in the primary here.
“We don’t normally, and it’s no slap at his opponent. It’s about Walt’s excellence.”
Hemingway campaign senior adviser Alicia Preston shrugged off the Christie-RGA endorsement of Havenstein.
“We learned in a little race in Virginia that voters are tired of the establishment hand-picking a candidate and telling them who to vote for, and the same will hold true here,” she said, referring to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss to David Brat.
She said the Hemingway campaign “has a great ground game. We have people out there working hard every single day. The base of support for Andrew is strong.”
Christie and Havenstein stopped at T-Bones Restaurant, where they visited every table greeting customers, some of whom were invited by the Havenstein campaign, but others who were patrons and appeared genuinely surprised to see Christie.
Outside the restaurant, Christie and Havenstein were greeted by small groups of Havenstein supporters, as well as protesters holding signs calling Havenstein a “fraud” because of questions raised by Democrats about his residency in the state and eligibility to run for governor. One protester asked Christie, who was 30 minutes late for the stop, if he had been stuck in traffic.
It was a reference to the controversy Christie still faces over the George Washington Bridge “Bridgegate” scandal. Although he has said that he was not involved in ordering the lane closures and was cleared in a probe he ordered, federal prosecutors continue to investigate whether in fact he was directly involved.
Esquire Magazine reported Thursday that U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Paul Fishman has empaneled a second grand jury, “and the U.S. Justice Department has sent assistant prosecutors and FBI agents to work the case.”
The report was headlined, “Prosecutor is Closing in on Gov. Christie.”
Christie said he made “nothing” of the Esquire story, adding, “I don’t respond to every crazy rumor that’s out there.”
The scandal in his administration hurt his standing as a clear front-runner in the potential 2016 Republican presidential field, at least for now. Still, a Suffolk University-Boston Herald poll this week showed Christie the leader by a razor thin margin over Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
It’s still early in the presidential primary process, and Christie said, “absolutely not – how dare you?” — but with a wry smile — when asked if part of the reason he was in the state was to plant the seeds of a presidential campaign.
“Everybody who is looking forward to 2016 now is being foolish,” Christie said. “If we as a party don’t lay the right groundwork by electing governors and taking the United States Senate in 2014, we won’t have the strongest foundation to run on no matter who the candidate is in 2016.
“People ask about 2016,” he added. “It’s New Hampshire and it’s the way it is. But, no, I’m here to make sure that Walt has the best campaign and best support he could possibly have.” After November, he said, “We’ll see what happens.”
Havenstein has been touting his business experience as the former CEO of BAE Systems, Inc., and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
Christie said the RGA “will be here right through November doing everything we can. There needs to be greater economic growth in the state and there needs to be greater job growth in the state. Walt’s entire career, whether it was in the Marine Corps, running the businesses he has been running, has been all about making sure that the private sector works well.”
Christie said, “I know what it’s like to be a challenger against an incumbent governor in a Northeastern state as a Republican. I want Walt to see with his own eyes, it is possible. You can win by standing up for the things you really believe in.”
He said Havenstein gives Republican the best chance to take the seat from incumbent Democratic Gov Maggie Hassan.
Prior to the Bedford stop, Havenstein told the New Hampshire Journal, “My campaign is about getting New Hampshire’s economy growing again and the governor is here to help me make that point. It also reflects the growing momentum of our campaign and the recognition that I am the most formidable candidate for governor in this election.
“Under Maggie Hassan, we have a walking dead economy,” said Havenstein. “It’s barely moving and it has no life. Our pinnacle economic growth of point nine percent last year lags behind Rhode Island. We are also 35th in the nation for new business start-ups, and I’m about breathing new life into the economy.”
The state Democratic Party said Havenstein was trying to “distort reality with his misleading attacks and put forward an agenda right out of the Koch Brothers playbook,” a reference to the billionaire co-founders of the Americans for Prosperity conservative advocacy group.
The NHDP noted that Hassan led Havenstein by a huge, 50 to 19 percent margin in this week’s Suffolk University poll, saying it showed “Granite Staters recognize Governor Hassan is taking our state’s economy in the right direction as businesses are creating jobs, our unemployment rate is at the lowest level since 2008 and seventh lowest in the nation, and our state has reclaimed nearly all the jobs lost in the Great Recession.”
Havenstein also said “Bridgegate” will not hurt Christie.
“Real leaders fix things. He uncovered a mess and was decisive and quick and he fixed it and I think the people of New Jersey appreciated it.”
He noted that at SAIC, “I uncovered a mess and addressed it as quickly as I could with the full support of the board of directors and leadership team.“
Democrats have charged Havenstein failed in his leadership post at SAIC by failing to adequately handle a scandal involving a New York City program designed to accurately track the hours of city employees, which had arisen before his arrival.
Meanwhile Friday evening, Hassan departed for her controversial trade mission to Turkey, which she is taking place despite a Hasan ban on out-of-state travel by state workers.
Republicans have strongly criticized the trip. But Hassan said in a statement, “Promoting international trade is a crucial way that we will boost our economy and continue to build a stronger middle class and a brighter economic future for the Granite State. “New Hampshire trade missions have been enormously beneficial to our state’s businesses and economy, and I’m very excited to help connect our businesses with new opportunities for growth, especially in sectors such as aerospace and defense, where our state is an emerging leader.”
Hours before Christie arrived in the state, he was in Washington courting Christian conservatives, an unusual role for a governor who has won twice in a Democratic state and heads the establishment RGA. He has raised a reported $50 million for the RGA since becoming chair.
Christie’s appearance at annual convention of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an influential group representing the party’s religious right, was described Friday by the Wall Street Journal as Christie’s “first formal attempt to reach conservative Christians, a group whose votes he might be hard-pressed to win, should he run in 2016.”
Havenstein is expected to benefit significantly from the financial support of the RGA, both in direct contributions and independent expenditure.
The Democratic Governors Association will clearly help Hassan, who currently is vice chair of the organization.
Christie hosted a RGA finance meeting with donors before the event at T-Bones, and, after the retail stop, was headed with Havenstein to a fundraiser in Atkinson for Havenstein.
In Bedford, Christie also voiced support for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is being investigated for what prosecutors are calling a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising and campaign spending with independent conservatives groups during state recall elections 2011 and 2012.
Walker has denied the charges, and Christie said he has “complete faith and confidence in Scott Walker.
“We all understand that the more you try to bring change to your state and change starts to sweep the country, the more you’re going to attacked by your opponents.”