(CNN) - Chris Christie's jam packed schedule on Thursday afternoon and evening in New Hampshire was advertised as being all about the 2014 midterm elections.
But the visit by the Republican governor of New Jersey and potential GOP presidential contender also had plenty of 2016 implications, as Christie tries to get beyond the bridge controversy back home in the Garden State that's hurt his political standing.
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Christie was in New Hampshire in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He teamed up with Walt Havenstein – the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate this year in the Granite State – at a retail campaign stop at in Nashua at BAE Systems, a defense contractor where Havenstein once served as the company's chief operating officer. Later he headlined fundraisers for Havenstein, the RGA and the state Republican Party at events in Manchester.
But 2016 hovered over trip.
This was Christie's second visit in just over a month to New Hampshire – the state that holds the first primary in the race for the White House. In between visits, he made a swing through Iowa – which kicks off the presidential caucus and primary calendar.
"Of course there's a 2016 angle here," said a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more openly.
"The same thing happened when Gov. Romney of Massachusetts was the RGA chairman in 2006. There was a Republican who ran against the Democratic incumbent governor who didn't have a snowball's chance of winning, but Gov. Romney made one or two trips to New Hampshire to help the GOP candidate," said the strategist.
Romney used his RGA chairmanship as a springboard to his 2008 run for the GOP nomination.
A day before his visit, a conservative group launched TV, radio and digital ads that slammed 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 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.
"Chris Christie promised to change New Jersey's liberal Supreme Court. Over and over he broke his promise. The court remains liberal," said the narrator in the commercial.
The group also went up with ads in Iowa in the days preceding Christie's visit to the Hawkeye State.
While Christie aides strongly defended their boss's record on judicial nominations, the episodes are 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 it's playing in New Hampshire
New Hampshire Republican consultant Ryan Williams says the controversy isn't making much of an impact in the Granite State.
"Christie's one of the potential frontrunners at the moment. New Hampshire voters don't put much stock in what the chattering class in Washington thinks about a candidate. I think that most people want to hear him out, talk to him, and begin to form an opinion of Gov. Christie in the context of a presidential campaign. The race is wide open," Williams added.
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The most recent non-partisan poll of the potential 2016 GOP nomination race in New Hampshire indicated a free-for-all. Christie was at 13% in the poll, one percentage point behind Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trailing Christie by three points. Take the sampling error into consideration and it's all tied up among the possible contenders.
"Chris Christie has a decent shot to capture a hunk of the GOP establishment and donor class in New Hampshire," said David Carney, a Granite State based Republican operative who was a longtime top political adviser to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"It depends on who else jumps in. He has suffered some setbacks and starts now more even with everyone else than might have been the case last year. But it's all very, very earlier. And the list of players is still very fluid," Carney told CNN.
Another GOP consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that Christie's is down a bit but definitely not out.
"Gov. Christie's standing has been damaged to some degree by the events of the past several months, but recent surveys suggest he's bouncing back and is in a good position to begin a presidential campaign here, which is a good thing because he has to win New Hampshire. Our insiders are curious about him, open to his candidacy and to getting to know him better."
For first time in years, there won't be a GOP presidential hopeful with an early leg up in New Hampshire.
"There is no frontrunner who already has an organization in the state, like Gov. Romney did when he ran in 2012 having already run four years earlier and John McCain in 2008 having run and won New Hampshire in 2000. So for the first time in several cycles there is no candidate with a pre-constructed organization in the state and that's why the race is wide open," Williams said.
But he did note that Paul does have an operation in the state left from his father's presidential 2012 campaign that he could activate.
Christie, for his part, has two former aides now working in New Hampshire in prominent GOP roles.
While the RGA chairmanship gives Christie the opportunity to travel to states Iike New Hampshire and South Carolina in the year before the presidential race gets underway, Christie's backing of Havenstein has seen some push back.
Andrew Hemingway, a more conservative candidate who trails Havenstein in the polls, has criticized the RGA chairman for taking sides in the primary battle.
The GOP consultant tells CNN that Christie's 2014 embrace of Havenstein, who's not beloved by those on the right, could hurt the New Jersey governor if he runs in 2016.
"Christie's endorsement of Walt Havenstein, our establishment candidate for Governor, could come back to haunt him with conservatives here, many of whom were already a bit skeptical of his record and potential candidacy."