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Chris Christie takes big 2016 step. How has that process reshaped him? (+video)

Gov. Chris Christie punctuated a weekend of political stumping at the Iowa Freedom Summit with the launch of a political-action committee Monday.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waves after speaking at the Freedom Summit, Saturday, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

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In-your-face Republican moderate Chris Christie has taken his most dramatic step to date in his likely quest for the American presidency. Governor Christie, who has dominated New Jersey’s ultra-blue halls of power for more than five years, launched a special political-action committee Monday, hiring a number of the country’s top political fundraisers and laying plans for a cross-country campaign for cash.

Christie’s newly launched PAC comes just days after the famously pugnacious governor courted conservative GOP voters in Iowa. On Saturday, he joined Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, along with other Republicans, to address religious conservatives at the Iowa Freedom Summit, an early political cattle call in anticipation of next year’s state caucuses.

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Not the most friendly of places for Christie – an event skipped by other moderate Republican aspirants including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who are both mulling 2016 runs. But with 11 trips to Iowa in the past five years, Christie has signaled his intent to face his party’s conservative naysayers head on.

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“Despite all that has gone on, he’s just going to roll the dice, and say, ‘This is who I am,’ ” says Matthew Hale, professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. “And with someone like him, we know that lightning can strike.”

Indeed, Christie has traveled an emotional and tumultuous political path over the past year, with lows and highs one might even call Nixonian or Clintonesque. More than a year ago, Christie was riding high, winning a resounding reelection in New Jersey and bolstering his case that he could appeal to Democratic voters around the country and use his considerable political chops to return the White House to the GOP.

But then the Bridge-gate scandal seemed to turn the loud and blunt politician’s greatest strengths into Jersey shore clichés. His closest right-hand aides concocted a likely payback scheme with a bogus traffic study at the George Washington Bridge – creating days of traffic havoc for a small-borough mayor who refused to join the cavalcade of Christie’s aggressively sought bipartisan endorsements.

It appeared to denude the Garden State governor, tempering his defining bravado and the aggressive off-the-cuff quips that made him so appealing to voters. Federal investigators continue to probe the actions surrounding the scandal.

But even as the controversy raged for months, a chastened Christie continued to press on with the kind of behind-the-headlines trench work so essential to presidential campaigns: building political capital and tapping into a national network of Republican donors.

As chair of the Republican Governors Association, Christie presided over a record haul, raising more than $100 million for GOP candidates and helping the party sweep to victory in the 2014 midterms even in unexpected places like Maryland and Illinois.

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Such startling success could give the New Jersey governor a bit of an edge in a crowded field, some observers say, especially if he can convince enough party stalwarts of his conservative credentials.

"I have heard and read the conventional wisdom that somehow a guy from New Jersey would not be welcomed or understood at the Iowa Freedom Summit, that somehow I'm too loud, that I'm too blunt, and that I'm too direct," the governor said on Saturday.

And despite being mocked for his unbridled public exuberance and jumping group hug with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in this year’s NFL playoffs, Christie remained defiantly unapologetic.  

“I think he certainly appeals to many of the same voters that Romney and Jeb Bush appeal to,” says Professor Hale, “but I think he also has the potential to appeal far more to working-class voters, and particularly to working-class union voters in a way that I don’t think Romney or Bush, with their patrician sensibilities, could.”

And Christie is a master of the retail stump, glad-handing voters with ease and handling town-hall meetings with an Every-person confidence few can match. His gruff no-nonsense quips and impolitic style often offer a refreshing change from many candidates' carefully scripted talking points.

On Saturday, when hecklers interrupted the opening of his speech to Iowa conservatives, the governor brushed it off, saying, “Don’t they know I’m from New Jersey?” – eliciting laughter and applause.

"If you want a candidate who agrees with you 100 percent of the time, I'll give you a suggestion: Go home and look in the mirror. You are the only person you agree with 100 percent of the time," he later told the gathering. "You'll always know who I am, you'll always know what I believe, and you'll always know where I stand."