SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is taking on a new high-profile role that could enhance a future White House campaign. But first things first.
Christie was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association on Thursday, a perch that will allow him to travel the country in support of GOP governors and candidates and raise money for the party throughout 2014. He dismissed any talk of a 2016 presidential campaign, saying the task of competing in 36 governors' races was the top priority.
"My job is to go out there and elect and re-elect Republican governors, and that is going to be my sole focus over the next 11 months," Christie told reporters Thursday. He said Republican leaders "start thinking about 2016 at our own peril, or at worse at the peril of our own colleagues."
One of his first acts as chairman was inviting former President George W. Bush to a surprise, governors-only lunch at a steakhouse in the Phoenician resort. Aides to the former president said Bush joined the GOP governors at Christie's request and spoke about his experiences as Texas governor and as president.
Leading the organization has long been a stepping stone to a national campaign. Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Rick Perry of Texas led the RGA before running for president and the group was once run by Ronald Reagan while he served as governor of California.
Christie gained widespread attention for his response to Hurricane Sandy, which battered the Jersey shore in the days leading up to the 2012 presidential election, and won re-election in a landslide earlier this month, bolstering his image as a straight-talking Republican in a Democratic-leaning state.
During a four-day annual conference, Republicans heaped praise on Christie's record and said he would help the party defend 22 seats currently held by Republicans next year.
"People like him and he's got one other thing going for him, it's called celebrity, and in case you haven't noticed, that's a big darn deal in America today," said Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday. "So he will draw crowds and he will be effective at raising money, I have no doubt."
Christie's new role will help him build ties to some of the party's most generous financial donors and connect with party leaders around the country. Through the first six months of 2013, the RGA raised $23.5 million and is entering the 2014 political year with more than $45 million in the bank. He was joined by several longtime advisers from New Jersey at the conference and held multiple finance meetings to map out a strategy for next year.
Christie has already booked political events in Vermont, Idaho and Oklahoma next month and many of the states he'll be defending could figure prominently in the party's future presidential prospects. Some of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents include Govs. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, Rick Scott of Florida, Rick Snyder of Michigan and Ohio's Kasich — four competitive states that were carried by President Barack Obama last year.
But White House talk can wait.
"2016 is a long way away and I'm two weeks out of a campaign," Christie said. "I'm not looking to start speculating about other campaigns already. I've got 2014 to deal with — that's what we're going to deal with."
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas