MARION, Iowa -- At 3 p.m. on a Thursday, well after any lunch rush had come and gone, MJ's Restaurant in Marion was teeming with activity.
Local Republicans filled seats at nearly bare tables -- a coffee mug here, an iced tea there -- and dozens of reporters loitered, all waiting to see Gov. Terry Branstad and his potential-future-presidential-candidate guest, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, making his first trip to Iowa since 2012.
The whole scene initially felt like an awkward first date: Iowa Republicans, still puzzling over what went wrong in their last presidential election, being wooed by an attractive new suitor and urged to move on.
Vic Klopfenstein had ended up at this particular lunch joint by coincidence and decided to stay for the spectacle, but he was still hung up on a former flame.
“Is there a rumor mill out east about Mitt Romney running?” Klopfenstein, a former Marion mayor, asked. “Or the two of them together…” He trailed off wistfully, considering a Romney-Christie ticket. “They'd be unstoppable.”
A large share of Iowa Republicans still have reservations about Christie, and one-third have already decided they dislike him, an NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday showed.
“That's not bad,” Christie said when confronted with those numbers. “I'll take it.”
And Christie hadn't come to Iowa looking for love, anyway -- or so he said.
"I don't care about being loved," Christie told reporters. "I care about being respected."
Officially, Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, traveled to Iowa on Thursday to raise money as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. The opportunity to gladhand in one of the states that will steer his party's nomination for president was, of course, a happy byproduct.
And, although Christie was campaigning for Branstad's re-election, strictly speaking, supporters peppered Christie with entreaties to launch a campaign of his own, for president.
"I'm thinking about it," Christie responded each time.
But Christie, introducing himself as “Chris,” impressed upon Iowans who welcomed him to their state that he was “glad to be back” — he campaigned in the state for Branstad in 2010 and Mitt Romney in 2012 — and wasn’t shy to tell them he’d be back again soon, too.
Indeed, Christie began to lay plans for future trips in some discussions Thursday with Iowa Republicans.
At a private fundraiser for Branstad in Cedar Rapids, where donors munched on turkey club sandwiches and cheesecake, Christie approached Republican congressional candidate Rod Blum, who is running in Iowa’s first district, with an offer to help raise money during a future trip, Blum said later.
In Marion, Christie and Blum saw each other again. “I’ll be back to help you,” Christie confirmed, shaking Blum’s hand.
Blum grinned after Christie as he walked out the door. “We’re going to hold him to it,” Blum said.
Christie would rank among the top tier of potential Republican presidential candidates in Iowa should he decide to run for president in 2016, recent public polls suggest -- but his popularity has lagged in the aftermath of his “Bridgegate” controversy, into which multiple investigations are ongoing.
Christie has worked to reconstruct his national political standing with frenetic fundraising for the RGA, bringing in $60 million so far. Stirring 2016 buzz with his trip to Iowa and, later this month, another to New Hampshire, could be seen as the next phase of Christie 2.0.
“He comes with some baggage,” conceded Randy Ellington, one of the supporters assembled in Marion, “but at least he has a message."
On Thursday, that message did not touch on in-depth policy discussion, and Christie was unwilling to wade into many of the diciest policy issues of the day.
When asked whether he would shelter unaccompanied immigrant children in New Jersey, Christie dodged by saying he would not “discuss a complicated issue like immigration here in a parking lot in Marion,” where he and Branstad held a press conference.
And Christie decided to forego an opportunity to weigh in on a foreign policy tiff between Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
"If other folks want to bicker about other things, that's their business," Christie said.
Instead, Christie favored small talk and selfies with Hawkeye State admirers — and what might have started like an awkward first date quickly seemed comfortable.
By the end of the day, at a barbecue dinner in Davenport, Christie was invoking his approval ratings in Iowa as a punchline.
“People from the press follow me around and ask, ‘Do people in Iowa love you, governor?’ And I say, ‘Heck, I don’t know, we just met,’” Christie told a 200-person crowd, to laughter. “But the early indications are good.”