Will Chris Christie find a welcome crowd in Iowa?

Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., exits a news briefing during the Republican Governors Association's quarterly meeting on May 21, 2014 in New York City.

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

The last time Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., was in Iowa -- in 2011, ahead of the Iowa caucuses -- he warned voters that if they didn't vote for Mitt Romney, he'd "be back -- Jersey style."

On Thursday, Christie is finally going back in his official capacity as head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA). The trip gives him the opportunity to test the waters for his own potential presidential campaign and see whether Jersey-style politics is more of an advantage or a disadvantage in Iowa.

Christie's visit comes amid the still-simmering scandal over the politically-motivated George Washington Bridge traffic jams. Federal and state investigators are still looking into the extent of the Christie administration's involvement and are in no rush to wrap up their work. Polling suggests the Jersey controversy may have taken a toll on Christie's standing with some voters in Iowa.

Meanwhile, a conservative activist group is making clear to Iowa voters this week that it's unhappy with Christie's New Jersey Supreme Court nominations. The governor had to make some compromises to get nominees through the Democratically-led legislature, but some conservatives may not be that forgiving when it comes to judicial nominees -- particularly in a state like Iowa that's keenly attuned to the significance of the judicial branch.

At the same time, the Iowa Republican Party this year has gone through some major changes that should make the state more welcoming for Christie, and most other prospective GOP nominees. On top of that, Christie's Jersey-style swagger and personality could be a big asset in Iowa, where voters are accustomed to getting more personal attention from national candidates.

"Retail politics cannot be overstated," Iowa-based GOP consultant Tim Albrecht told CBS News. Albrecht is the director at Redwave Digital, a firm currently working with the Iowa Republican Party and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, among others.

"There were a number of people from one ideological wing [of the GOP] in 2012, and there will be in 2016, but if you aren't able to translate on the stump, it's tough to get support," he said. "Chris Christie is a powerhouse on the stump. He makes people listen, he makes people understand, he is an inspirational speaker, and it translates well in Iowa."

If Christie does win over Iowa voters, the infrastructure is now in place within the Iowa GOP to translate that support into caucus votes, Albrecht said.

During the 2012 election cycle, libertarian voters who supported Ron Paul's presidential bid managed to take over the Iowa GOP. However, Branstad led an effort to wrest control from that wing of the party, and last month, Branstad's ally, former state Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, took over as the new chairman of the Iowa GOP.

Under the new leadership, "every candidate will have a fair shake" in the caucuses, Albrecht said. Given that "candidates cannot come here and buy television commercials and expect to win the caucuses," he added, "Christie's making a great move with the events he's doing this week."

Christie is kicking off his visit Thursday with an RGA fundraising breakfast with Branstad, who is up for re-election this year. After that, Christie will attend a fundraiser for Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. Then, Christie and Branstad will make a campaign stop in Marion, Iowa. In the evening, the two governors will be at an event billed as "An Evening at the Fair" in Davenport, Iowa.

One Iowa event Christie is not attending in the coming weeks is the Family Leadership Summit, hosted by the conservative Christian group the Family Leader. Christie's staff told the Family Leader that the governor wanted to attend but that his family schedule conflicted with the Aug. 9 event, Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats told CBS News.

Underscoring how important Christian conservative voters are in Iowa, several other prospective 2016 candidates will be there, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

"We're not even into the midterms yet, but it does appear the 2016 campaign is gearing up," Vander Plaats said. "It looks like people definitely want to cast their vision for the future as well as being helpful for the midterm."

As leaders at the summit give their vision for the future, Vander Plaats said he expects to hear a lot about religious liberty and the role of the courts. While the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision was a victory for social conservatives, "we've seen a lot of courts usurp the will of the people and overturn constitutional amendments" banning same-sex marriage, Vander Plaats said.

The current relevance of this issue could make the critique against Christie's state Supreme Court picks resonate a bit more. The Judicial Crisis Network is spending $75,000 to run ads online attacking Christie's nomination and to promote its website, www.christiebadonjudges.com, ahead of the governor's Iowa trip.

Vander Plaats noted that Iowa voters are "probably a little more astute and informed" on the role of the courts than most, following the 2010 vote to oust three Iowa judges who overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban.

"Iowa's definitely a retail politics state -- [voters] want to shake your hand, look you in the eye, and they want to do it multiple times," Vander Plaats said. "But they're also motivated by issues."

One issue -- the George Washington Bridge scandal -- appears to have taken a toll on Christie's approval rating in Iowa. However, the latest Iowa poll from Quinnipiac, conducted in June, shows that Christie's reputation is recovering. In the meantime, Christie's success fundraising for the RGA indicates the bridge scandal isn't putting too much of a damper on the governor's appeal to the GOP.