New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said he has no interest in running for president but relentless speculation about his plans could make him a kingmaker in 2012 and position him to run in 2016.
Known for his blunt style and conservative approach to state spending, the Republican governor has insisted he is not ready to be president.
But his apparent willingness to be courted by political powerbrokers and his out-of-state travel have observers thinking he is interested in building his national profile.
Monday, Christie appeared at an education summit in Iowa, which holds the vital first nominating contest in the U.S. presidential race in February 2012. Last month, he hosted a group of Iowa businessmen for dinner at the governor's mansion, where they tried to persuade him to enter the race.
Last week, Christie met Ken Langone, a co-founder of The Home Depot, and other Republican powerbrokers also to discuss his presidential prospects, the Politico website reported.
"When 20,000 people are running down the street screaming your name, you tend to pay attention, and in this case there's a lot more than 20,000," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist. "Could Christie enter? Not likely. But why not go and find out what people think of you?"
In addition, strong popularity in Iowa could translate into other candidates coveting a Christie endorsement, which would help keep Christie's name in the game, Sheinkopf said.
"This is really a 2016 move. He's kind of saying, 'Hey, don't forget me later on, even if this doesn't work out,'" Sheinkopf said.
Christie, 48, has been a rising star in the Republican Party since taking office last year with a low-tax, lean-government agenda.
His overhaul of the state's public worker benefits system, a priority for many governors, was accomplished with support from the Democrat-controlled state legislature and seen as an important political victory.
BEHAVING LIKE A CANDIDATE
By insisting he wants to stay in his current job, while at times behaving like a national candidate, Christie is able to enjoy attention without the scrutiny, the experts said.
"If he were really running, then we'd begin to see the real, careful national focus on him, which right now doesn't exist," said David Redlawsk, a Rutgers University professor of political science. "No candidate looks perfect once people really start paying attention."
Polls show Christie's popularity waning in New Jersey, especially in the wake of a contentious budget battle, where he used a line-item veto to slash millions in spending from the plan approved by the legislature.
Cuts in state aid to some of New Jersey's most troubled cities -- such as Camden and the state capital of Trenton -- could mean a tough road ahead for high crime-ridden cities, where budget cuts have already led to huge reductions in urban police departments.
The Christie speculation underscores the dissatisfaction among some Republicans with the nascent field of 2012 hopefuls including Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has expressed interest in entering the race, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who has a strong following among conservatives, has also not yet announced her intentions.