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Christie plunges back into building 2016 coalition with appearance on 'Tonight'



By STEVE PEOPLES and ERIK SCHELZIG

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Chris Christie is plunging into what amounts to a cross-country revival tour, looking to recover from a clumsy political scandal and reclaim his place as a promising Republican presidential prospect.

In one recent week, it was on-the-ground politics in Tennessee and New Mexico. This week, after a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, the New Jersey governor returns to the late night comedy circuit with an appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show." Then he'll stop by Mitt Romney's Utah summit, a private event for donors and GOP establishment leaders, and the week after that he heads to Washington to court Christian conservatives at a national gathering of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

All the while, he's raising a record-setting amount of money for other Republicans, and bolstering his political network in all the right places - Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular.

"As the president's record continues to get worse, as the Democratic Party brand continues to get worse across the country, this momentum's going to build," Christie said recently. "I've been looking forward to this year for quite some time."

Despite his optimism, this isn't where Christie expected to be at this point on the road to 2016. His stock plummeted early this year after it was discovered that members of his staff and political allies intentionally snarled traffic from New Jersey into Manhattan, apparently to punish a political rival.

On Monday, Christie's chief of staff testified about the political-retribution plot before a state legislative committee, another reminder of the ongoing challenges the governor faces while intensifying his national outreach. Recent polls suggest that Christie's once-impressive coalition of supporters - including independents, women, Hispanics and even some Democrats - has more or less disappeared nationally.

"He's a great man, but I'm not sure he can overcome it," said Susan Brubaker, a Tennessee Republican who attended Christie's recent appearance there.

Christie's aides note the first votes of the 2016 campaign won't be cast for more than a year. They argue he's already weathered the worst of a scandal that triggered widespread concern among key members of the Republican Party, including major donors and leaders eager for the party to regain the White House.

In the meantime, Christie is charging forward with renewed vigor and raising money at a breakneck pace.

Like other prospects, he hasn't declared he's running, though he did acknowledge Monday that it's "something that I'm thinking about." He said he wouldn't make up his mind until early 2015.

Monday evening, Christie was headlining a fundraiser for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, an appearance tied to Christie's role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a one-year position he assumed last November. The RGA had nearly $70 million cash on hand and confirmed it had raised $50 million through the end of last week under Christie's leadership, a six-month record for the group and substantially more than what the committee's Democratic competitor has raised at the same time.

Christie has begun to couple his governors association trips - 22 out-of-state appearances in 16 states so far this year - with fundraisers for state Republican parties, congressional candidates and "retail stops" where local media coverage is encouraged. Christie addressed the state GOP while in Tennessee after a day spent campaigning for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam.

"The activity level will only pick up," said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. "He continues to be in high demand on the stump."

In recent weeks, Christie has also waded into new territory by delivering a foreign policy speech in New York. He has also spoken publicly and privately with GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, whose interests are focused on Israel and not domestic policy or issues such as the massive budget deficit Christie faces at home in New Jersey.

Such moves carry risk for Christie, who could alienate Republican supporters at home as he tries to recover those lost outside New Jersey.

"I think he's in national mode, not state mode. And right now he's the governor and he's got to focus on the state," said Bob Lebovics, a Republican donor based in New Jersey who attended Christie's appearance last month at the Republican Jewish Coalition's meeting in Las Vegas. "At the end of the day, it's not about him."

Such frustrations could grow as his national ambitions again become obvious. Christie last week announced plans to visit New Hampshire to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein, his first visit to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state since the 2012 election. He'll visit local businesses while there and could also campaign for U.S. Senate candidate Scott Brown.

Christie is also paying attention to Iowa, which hosts the nation's first presidential caucuses. He'll be there next month to campaign with Gov. Terry Branstad, having hosted a fundraiser in New Jersey for the longtime Iowa governor last week.

Meanwhile, Christie's advisers point to a significant decrease in national media attention on the bridge scandal, despite the ongoing federal investigation and one run by New Jersey Democrats who control the state Legislature. Christie recently said the issue would be "a footnote" in his political future.

"I just act like myself, and people take it or leave it," Christie said in Tennessee. "And I'm completely content with that."

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Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington and AP writers Jill Colvin in New Jersey and Adrian Sainz in Memphis contributed to this report.

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