By Ginger Gibson and Luciana Lopez
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Donald Trump’s endorsement from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie opens up a wide network of donors, advisers and prominent elected officials whom the billionaire has not yet been able to attract to his unorthodox bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
As Trump tries to lock up the Republican nomination on Super Tuesday, Christie advisers and supporters told Reuters in interviews that he could bring much-needed financial and strategic backing.
Christie’s backing demonstrates that Trump will be able to bring establishment politicians into the fold, that he could raise the money necessary for a general election campaign and build a staffing operation that can rival a Democratic nominee.
The nod from Christie comes at a critical moment. On Tuesday, 11 states will vote and if Trump is able to win all or most of them, he could pull so far ahead in the competition for delegates that none of his rivals will be able to catch him.
In an interview with Reuters, Christie supporter Finn Wentworth, a real estate investor and former head of the company that owns the New York Yankees, New Jersey Nets and New Jersey Devils, said he is now seriously considering backing Trump.
“I am a long-time supporter of Governor Christie. In that process, I have learned to respect his opinion and his judgment,” Wentworth said. “He’s a results-oriented person, and frankly I am now looking at Donald Trump because of Governor Christie’s endorsement today.”
Maine Governor Paul LePage, who had backed Christie initially, quickly followed in the New Jersey governor's footsteps and got behind Trump - making him the second sitting governor to endorse the New York real estate mogul. Maine votes on March 5.
A senior Christie aide told Reuters he believes staff could move to the Trump campaign in the coming weeks, helping the Republican front-runner in his fledgling efforts to build a circle of advisers who could form the core of his general election campaign should he clinch the nomination.
Wentworth said part of his decision-making process is that he is now convinced it is inevitable that Trump will clinch the Republican nomination.
Dale Florio, a donor to Christie, said he, along with others, has a call scheduled with the New Jersey governor later on Friday. “If he says, I’d like you guys to support Donald Trump, I’ll be there for him,” Florio said.
Trump has thus far avoided traditional fundraising. However, more than half of his campaign spending in 2015 was covered by money raised through the sale of his "Make America Great Again" hats and T-shirts, even though he told his supporters not to write donation checks. But as a nominee, that position may be impossible to stick to, especially if Clinton is the Democratic nominee and she is able to build a sizable arsenal.
Christie’s endorsement could have the power to bring more establishment-aligned officials and donors into Trump’s camp. Christie could also serve as a surrogate fundraiser.
Christie is no stranger to the nation’s top Republican donors. In 2014, he served as the head of the Republican Governors Association, a role that largely consists of traveling the nation and raising money for Republican gubernatorial candidates. Christie was one of the most successful heads the organization has ever seen.
Rob Gray, a Republican strategist who had been advising Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who dropped out of the race last Saturday, called the endorsement a "stunning surprise."
“Christie’s endorsement is an indicator to me Trump is starting to mainstream his candidacy and that he’ll be able to attract a lot of mainstream experienced political leaders' support if he gets the nomination," Gray said. "I wasn’t as sure before this."
The biggest boost Christie may have offered Trump was a distraction from the coverage of Marco Rubio’s Thursday night debate performance and increased scrutiny in some of his business endeavors, like Trump University, a defunct venture that offered real estate investing seminars and which is currently the target of lawsuits.
Both Rubio and Ted Cruz, Trump's two biggest challengers, battered away at Trump in Thursday's televised debate - the last before Super Tuesday.
"I’m sure Rubio and Cruz at the very least had things that they wanted to do today to follow up from their narrative last night and this kind of sucked the air out," said Tom Rath, who is advising the campaign of Ohio Governor John Kasich.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Luciana Lopez; Editing by Leslie Adler)
This article was funded in part by SAP. It was independently created by the Reuters editorial staff. SAP had no editorial involvement in its creation or production.
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