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Late at night, Christie doing 2016 foreign policy homework

NEWARK, N.J. - It's after 9 on a Sunday night in late November, and Gov. Christie is deep into a conference call, talking about nuclear weapons and Iran.

NEWARK, N.J. - It's after 9 on a Sunday night in late November, and Gov. Christie is deep into a conference call, talking about nuclear weapons and Iran.

One voice is advocating a hard line, arguing against allowing Iran any capability to enrich uranium. Another summarizes the status of current negotiations and argues that forcing Iran to give up enrichment isn't realistic.

This is how the New Jersey governor has spent many of his nights during a year in which he raised record-setting amounts of campaign cash for his fellow Republican governors and methodically tried to recover from a political scandal involving traffic jams near a New York City bridge. Late at night, away from the spotlight of the midterm elections and 2016 speculation, he's been on the phone with some of the brightest foreign policy minds in the Republican Party, getting ready to run for president.

"They have been much quieter in general in their outreach and their approach than, say, [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry, who has been very public and active" about a possible run, said Lanhee Chen, who served as 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's chief policy adviser and is among those whom Christie's aides have sought out for guidance.

"And I think that reflects a difference in terms of what they perceive that they need to accomplish here, very early on, to be viable as presidential candidates," Chen said.

Such preparation is expected from prospective White House candidates, especially those such as Christie, a longtime politician in New Jersey and former U.S. attorney who lacks the foreign policy experience of the presumed favorite for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But the previously undisclosed prep sessions are another indication that Christie's political ambitions are undeterred by the George Washington Bridge scandal and the all-but-formal entry into the 2016 campaign of the Republican former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, a competitor for support among donors eager to back an establishment nominee.

The briefing efforts are led by Bob Grady, a longtime adviser to Christie and a former White House official who has become the point man on policy in the Christie circle. Assisting is Robert Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank and U.S. Trade Representative, and Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state who was the Romney campaign's senior adviser on foreign policy.

Zoellick and Grady said some of the sessions have covered Christie's recent trips to Mexico and Canada. Other topics have included Ukraine and Russia, the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq, Iran, and the U.S. defense budget.

The calls, which generally last about 90 minutes, typically begin with several experts discussing a region's history, recent developments and the views of foreign leaders of the countries involved, followed by a detailed question-and-answer session. The format is designed, they said, to expose Christie to multiple points of view and help him build a deeper understanding of history and world affairs.

"The idea is, the governor will form his own views, and this is the stage where he can get some sort of range of perspectives, some sense of questions that he should be thinking about," Zoellick said. "I personally think, having been through these since the '88 campaign in one form or another, is that it's the best way for him to actually think through and develop a foundation."

Christie has also met one-on-one or on the phone with officials, business leaders and academics, including former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger, and Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass.

While selling himself as a brash straight-talker, Christie has been notably reluctant to share his views about policy issues that fall outside his wheelhouse as governor. That includes immigration, which Christie has repeatedly said he won't discuss unless he chooses to run.

That has triggered criticism, with a Washington Post columnist suggesting Christie was at risk of becoming the "Rick Perry of 2016" - a reference to the Texas governor's dismal performance in 2012 and his inability to recall in one debate the details of his own plan to eliminate three federal departments.

While Christie and his aides have also been reluctant to share other details about their preparations, members of his team, led by his chief political adviser, Mike DuHaime, and money man Bill Palatucci, have begun a quiet outreach effort to potential donors as well as conservative activists, people familiar with the efforts said.

One of Christie's most loyal cheerleaders, Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, said he had been chatting up friends and associates who may also be interested in backing a Christie campaign.

"As I talk, I'm keeping a list of people that, if the governor decides to run, these are the people I'm going to go to and say, 'Would you like to help?' " he said.

There is more to be done, and soon, should Christie want to stay competitive in a race defined by Bush's announcement last week that he plans to "actively explore" a campaign.

Christie's people have been less aggressive in feeling out potential staffers in early voting states, and he does not have any kind of political action committee to allow him to raise money to pay for his travel and other campaign preparation.

With nearly a dozen potential candidates raring to go, there is little time left for the behind-the-scenes approach. Florida's Mel Sembler, a former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, said he received a flurry of calls from donors last week telling him, "We're ready," following Bush's announcement.

"Sides," Sembler said, "are beginning to be drawn."