New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has taken his firmest step yet toward running for president, launching an organization that allows him to raise money for a potential 2016 campaign.
While not a formal entry into the race, opening the political action committee will allow Christie to begin to hire staffers, build the foundations of a campaign operation and travel across the country as he weighs a final decision on a run.
The creation of the political action committee - called Leadership Matters for America - was widely expected, and comes not long after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced in December he was launching a similar organization, which kicked off an aggressive race to lock down establishment donors and may have drawn 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney into the race.
A mission statement on the organization's website echoes themes that Christie has focused in recent speeches, including remarks on Saturday in Iowa in front of conservative activists.
"America has been a nation that has always controlled events and yet today events control us. Why? Because leadership matters," the mission statement reads. "It matters if we want to restore America's role in the world, find the political will to take on the entrenched special interests that continually stand in the way of fundamental change, reform entitlement spending at every level of government, and ensure that every child, no matter their zip code, has access to a quality education."
Christie, who has been pitching himself to donors as a candidate who can expand the Republican Party's tent by appealing to minority, women and independent voters, also appears to be forging a populist message, adding that, "We must support candidates who share our vision, people who know that only through strong, bold leadership will we be able to take on these challenges and act on the promise of a better tomorrow for working and middle-class Americans."
The PAC's staffers will include Matt Mowers, a former Christie aide, who is stepping down from his job as executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party at the end of the month. Christie is named as its honorary chairman.
Christie's chief political adviser Mike DuHaime did not respond to requests for comment, but told The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the news early Monday, that the group's backers "believe there's a void right now in leadership throughout the country."
"We're certainly confident on the fundraising side that there is more than enough support for this PAC," he told the newspaper.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has been in the GOP's presidential discussion since 2012, when he passed on the race and was later considered by Romney as a potential running mate.
After overwhelmingly winning re-election in heavily Democratic New Jersey in 2013, Christie turned quickly toward laying the groundwork for a 2016 campaign. In the past several months he has held meetings to court donors, convened late-night briefing sessions on foreign policy and made repeated visits to early-voting states, including Iowa, where he has organized meetings with potential backers.
He has additional trips planned over the coming weeks, including visits to New Hampshire and California.
Christie backers say the New Jersey governor has already proven himself a capable fundraiser, having recently completed a banner year as chair of the Republican Governors Association. The group raised more than $100 million on Christie's watch and helped Republican candidates win a series of unexpected races, including the Democratic states of Maryland and Illinois.
Serving as RGA chief also gave Christie the opportunity to travel across the country and build relationships with donors and activists. He is also one of his party's most talented retail politicians, reveling in the kind of one-on-one interaction that voters in the crucial early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire demand.
But Christie also has challenges to overcome, including the still-pending federal investigation into accusations that former staff members and appointees created traffic jams as political payback against the Democratic mayor of a New York suburb by blocking access lanes to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
He's also dogged by questions about the economy of New Jersey, including several recent downgrades of the state's credit rating and sluggish job growth. Christie is also viewed with distrust in certain conservative circles, while other question whether his brash persona and habit of confrontation will play well outside his home state.
While Christie has also told supporters to "relax" about the timing of his entry into the race, he has faced mounting pressure to get started after Bush - whose support and donor base significantly overlaps with Christie's - said he would "actively explore" a run.