In New Hampshire, Chris Christie winks, nods at 2016 questions

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie greets Clemence Blanchard, 102, of Manchester, N.H., as her daughter Summer Heber looks on as he campaigns with New Hampshire Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein, top right, Friday, June 20, 2014, in Bedford, N.H. AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

BEDFORD, N.H. -- Chris Christie's reputation for bluntness was on full display during an appearance at T-Bone's Restaurant in the nation's first presidential primary state on Friday when he was besieged with inquiries about his White House ambitions.

Asked by a reporter whether he had come to New Hampshire to continue laying the groundwork for his widely expected 2016 campaign, Christie answered the question with his tongue planted firmly in cheek.

"Absolutely not," he said, his tone infused with feigned outrage over the question's premise. "How dare you."

Christie then proceeded to offer the boilerplate answer that any ambitious politician gives to such inquiries in 2014: that the midterm elections are too important for anyone but a fool to be looking ahead to 2016.

He was, after all, ostensibly here to campaign on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Walt Havenstein.

But the circumstances surrounding Christie's first New Hampshire visit of this election cycle suggest that he is indeed assigning the next even-numbered year more than a passing thought in his head.

Why else would he be here at this point in the game, taking the rare step of picking sides in a contested Republican primary, if he weren't thinking ahead?

"Walt is just an outstanding candidate in every way you would want one, and so I made the decision myself that I was going to get involved in the primary here," Christie said. "As you know, we don't normally [endorse in Republican primaries], and it's no slap at his primary opponent--it's about Walt's excellence. And I want the best chance that we can to win the governorship here in New Hampshire, and I believe Walt gives us the best chance."

As Chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), Christie has until today followed precedent by not getting involved in any contested GOP primaries.

That the first and only exception he has made in following that unwritten rule occurred in New Hampshire--which just so happens to be the early voting state most critical to Christie's chances of winning the 2016 Republican nomination--is telling.

Though he is widely considered the GOP frontrunner for governor, Havenstein does have a real primary fight to contend with in the form of New Hampshire entrepreneur Andrew Hemingway, who has strong ties to grassroots conservative groups in the state.

Christie's visit figures to draw some much-needed attention to his preferred Republican gubernatorial contender, who has been struggling to boost his name identification and gain traction in the race.

And that boost might in turn pay dividends down the line for Christie, though Havenstein has a long way to go in making his campaign competitive.

In a hypothetical general election matchup, Havenstein trails Hassan by 21.8 percent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.

During his brief New Hampshire visit, Christie also attended two private fundraisers where he connected with some of the influential Republicans who hold sway over presidential politics here.

It was a stark change of scenery from earlier in the day on Friday, when the New Jersey Republican was in Washington, D.C.

Christie had traveled to the nation's capital to address thousands of evangelical Christians at the Faith & Freedom Coalition, which provided an opportunity to tout his anti-abortion rights credentials.

"What we did in the campaign was speak very frankly to people about the sanctity of life," Christie said of his successful 2013 reelection bid, according to Politico. "How I believe that every life is a gift from God that's precious, that must be protected...[voters] had a right to know what was in my heart. Because when you know what's in someone's heart, you have a window into how they will lead."

In New Hampshire, however, Christie steered clear of the abortion issue and for good reason.

Havenstein supports abortion rights and is running against a candidate, Hemingway, who opposes them.

The issue has not come up much in the context of the Republican primary, as Republican voters in New Hampshire on the whole tend to place less of a priority on hot-button social issues than they do in other parts of the country.

"I'm not going to agree with Gov. Christie on everything," Havenstein said in an interview with RealClearPolitics when asked about their contrasting views on abortion. "But I think where we do agree is on my economic views, and that's why I'm running for governor."

Inside T-Bone's restaurant, Havenstein introduced himself by name to the diners he greeted, while Christie for the most part dispensed with that unnecessary formality.

After all, everyone in this Republican-leaning southern New Hampshire town knew who the New Jersey governor was, though some were not certain about whether they intended to vote for him in the presidential primary a year-and-a-half from now.

"I'm undecided," one woman told Christie.

"Undecided on what?" the governor shot back.

When the woman explained that she was referring to the 2016 primary, rather than the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Christie offered a telling reply.

"That's OK," he said. "We'll work on that later."

As he made his way around the restaurant, Christie accepted more than a few compliments on his weight loss and the dance moves that he showed off in a recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

But the topic of utmost interest in this politically attuned state was Christie's future.

"The last governor I shook hands with became president--that was Ronald Reagan," one diner told him.

Christie responded without missing a beat:

"That's good karma, baby!" he said.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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