WATERLOO — Minutes before the Iowa Irish Fest 5K started, Urbandale’s John Leonhart was with his three daughters and hundreds of others waiting for the race to get underway, when someone caught his attention.
“Chris Christie, good to see you,” Leonhart shouted from somewhere in the center of the pack.
He and daughters, Alison, Sarah and Emily, ran their race, caught their breath and then caught up with the Republican presidential candidate, who had barely gotten farther into the festival grounds by the time the race finished Saturday morning.
Leonhart said he had no problem recognizing Christie and his wife Mary Pat but he was — like many other festivalgoers and volunteers — surprised to see them walking through Iowa Irish Fest.
Christie spent more than an hour Saturday morning meeting people at the downtown Waterloo event — shaking hands with runners, hugging men in kilts and engaging with children decked out in green and orange beaded necklaces.
“We’re happy to be here. We really are,” Christie said to attendees.
Christie told the audience at a town hall event Friday night in Cedar Falls that he is a product of his parents: an Irish father and a Sicilian mother. He visited the Italian-American Heritage Festival last weekend in downtown Des Moines.
In Waterloo, Christie moved effortlessly from shaking hands to snapping selfies to engaging in conversations on issues for several minutes.
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Gary Dunn of Waterloo spent some time talking with Christie about Notre Dame after Christie noticed the shirt Dunn was sporting. Dunn is simply a fan of Notre Dame sports but the Christies’ daughter attends school there.
Dunn said in all the years he’s been coming to Irish Fest he’s not encountered another presidential hopeful.
Dunn said he’s impressed with Christie, though he’s still choosing from the three or four he considers among his favorites.
“I like Gov. Christie, because he is direct. He lets you know where he stands … I just see him as a leader,” Dunn said, adding, “I’m tickled to death with the number of choices and the caliber of choices we have to choose from this year.”
Leonhart also pays close attention to politics and is likewise still choosing which candidate to support. While he likes Rand Paul, Leonhart said he also likes what he’s heard from Christie.
While Christie is polling nationally at 3 to 4 percent, he said he has confidence that he will be among the top 10 candidates — in a field of 17 — to be able to participate in the first Republican primary debate on Thursday.
“I’ve never had a whole lot of trouble getting attention, so I don’t think that’s my problem,” Christie told media after walking the grounds. “I just think it’s differentiating yourself.”