(CNN) - Chris Christie's jam packed swing through Iowa on Thursday is advertised as being all about the 2014 midterm elections.
But the visit by the Republican governor of New Jersey and potential GOP presidential contender has plenty of 2016 implications, as Christie tries to get beyond the bridge controversy back home in the Garden State that's diminished his political standing.
Christie's heading to Iowa in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He'll headline a fundraiser for longtime GOP Gov. Terry Branstad, who's running for re-election this year. He'll also help raise money for the RGA and for Republican Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. Of note, a retail campaign stop with Branstad was added at the last minute to Christie's schedule.
The trip is Christie's first this cycle to Iowa, the state that kicks off presidential caucus and primary calendar. While that's raising speculation about Christie's 2016 intentions, a top Christie aide says this trip is focused on November's elections.
"This is all about helping Governor Branstad. The two hit it off in 2010, and they have been strong friends and allies ever since. I understand people are taking greater note of this trip than when he goes to Maine or Florida or Arkansas, but Governor Christie's focus is on 2014, and helping Governor Branstad get re-elected," top Christie political adviser Mike DuHaime told CNN.
But Branstad doesn't need much help. He's far ahead of his little known Democratic challenger when it comes to fundraising, and polling.
The next race for the White House is definitely hovering over Christie's visit.
Two days before his visit, a conservative group launched digital ads that slam the potential 2016 contender over his Garden State record on judicial nominations. The Judicial Crisis Network attacked Christie for not making the New Jersey Supreme Court more conservative.
Some conservative activists were mad at Christie for his renomination earlier this year of the Democratic state Supreme Court chief justice. That renomination was part of a deal Christie made with the Democratic dominated state legislature that allowed him fill a court vacancy with a Republican judge.
"Important issues like Obamacare are at stake in our courts. The next president of the United States may get to appoint as many as three U.S. Supreme Court nominees. A new majority. Call Chris Christie. Tell him to fight for judges who respect the rule of law," says the narrator in the Judicial Crisis Network web ad.
While Christie aides were quick to defend the governor's record on judicial nominations, the episode is another reminder that the pragmatic conservative who's willing to compromise with state Democrats to get things accomplished, is anything but a crowd favorite among some on the right.
Bridge scandal takes a toll
Christie's chairmanship of the RGA was seen as a possible stepping stone to a potential 2016 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He took over as chairman last November, just a couple of weeks after he was overwhelming re-elected to a second term in Trenton. At the time, was the frontrunner in early polling of the potential field of 2016 Republican White House hopefuls.
But six weeks into his tenure as chairman, the George Washington Bridge controversy went viral. State lawmakers and the U.S. Attorney's Office are investigating allegations that top Christie appointees orchestrated traffic jams last September by closing access lanes to the bridge in Fort Lee to politically punish that town's mayor for not endorsing the governor's re-election.
Even though Christie has repeatedly denied knowing anything about the gridlock until after it occurred, his poll numbers – both in New Jersey and nationally – took a big hit. But his numbers stabilized, and then bounced back a bit. Meanwhile Christie has continued to travel across the country in his role as RGA chairman, raising a record amount of money for the group and supporting Republican governors running for re-election and GOP gubernatorial candidates.
How's it playing in Iowa
The bridge controversy appears to be far from the minds of Iowa Republicans.
"Nobody is talking about it," Iowa Republican strategist Tim Albrecht told CNN.
A new NBC News/Marist survey released Thursday indicated that half of Iowa Republicans have a favorable view of Christie, with a third seeing him in a negative way. His negatives were higher in the new poll than those of any of the other potential 2016 GOP White House hopefuls tested.
Christie had a 54%-23% favorable/unfavorable rating among Iowa Republicans in a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month. His favorable/unfavorable rating stood at 49%-14% among Hawkeye State Republicans last July.
Albrecht, who served as a top adviser to Branstad, said that "Gov. Christie has always enjoyed a warm welcome in Iowa, and this time will be no different. Iowans take the time to get to know their candidates, learn where they stand on the issues, and make a caucus-night decision based on first-person experiences with these candidates. Should Chris Christie decide he wants to run for president, this visit is a prime opportunity to pick up support, and even if he doesn't run, Iowans appreciate the fact that he's willing to come here and give our governor an assist."
GOP consultant Matt Strawn, a past chairman of the state Republican party, said it's an important trip for Christie "because he has not been as frequent a visitor to Iowa as other national figures. Thus, most Iowa Republicans have not yet developed a personal feeling or connection toward him."
Except for a first stop in the Des Moines area, Christie spends his day in eastern Iowa, a part of the state that may be more friendly to the New Jersey governor.
"Christie is perceived as a fighter. Charismatic. Relatable. A chief executive and a doer. All attributes held in high esteem by many Iowa Republicans, especially those within the business and donor community. The strong response to his upcoming appearances in Eastern Iowa is a testament to that appeal," Strawn added. "His current appeal among the most ideologically conservative of Iowa's activists is more of a mixed bag as those voters remain generally suspect that a Northeastern Republican governor can best represent the party's principles."
While Christie's political skills and charisma shine through on the campaign trail, the investigations into the bridge controversy continue, hanging like a cloud over his potential 2016 aspirations. The scandal, and the Garden State's budget woes, would give possible rivals to the GOP nomination plenty of ammunition to attack Christie.
Christie's swing through Iowa comes two weeks before he headlines a Republican party fundraiser in New Hampshire, the state that holds the first primary in the primary and caucus calendar. It's his second trip to the Granite State in the past month.
Christie says he hasn't made up his mind about running for president.
"I'm in no hurry to make those decisions," he said Wednesday in an interview on CNBC. "I have a pretty good day job as governor of New Jersey."
"The fact is that you should beware of people in my opinion are overanxious to make that decision before they need to," Christie added. "That would seem to indicate to me ambition over wisdom, and I don't think that's what you want in the person sitting in the Oval Office."