New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie came to Portland on Wednesday for a fundraiser for Gov. Paul LePage, in the first of what Christie promised would be many visits to Maine in support of LePage’s re-election bid in November.

At a mostly empty Becky’s Diner on Commercial Street, the Republican governors shook hands with the few patrons around 5 p.m. and greeted the staff in the kitchen, then answered reporters’ questions before a private reception with donors at 5:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn by the Bay on Spring Street.

“This is one of the top five races in the country for the Republican Governors Association,” said Christie, the chairman of that organization. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time up here and resources here. I think the governor has a record that deserves that kind of support: 10,000 new jobs up here in Maine since he took office, biggest tax cut that Maine’s had in a long time, and welfare reform that he’s gotten done here has been significant.”

The visit to the diner, which lasted about five minutes before both governors went outside to take questions, came at an off-hour for a restaurant known for its breakfast and lunch. There were few customers for the two politicians to meet, and at the request of the association’s advance team, the appearance was not publicized.

One of the few patrons was Stephen Bartlett, 92, the father of Becky Rand, the diner’s owner.

Rand said she was notified of the visit Wednesday and told practically no one – except her father, an ardent LePage supporter, who had a brief conversation with both governors.

“He was excited,” Rand said. “I don’t think he imagined he’d talk to (LePage).”

As the statewide campaign for governor builds momentum going into the summer, participation by the Republican Governors Association, and by the Democratic Governors Association, is only expected to increase.

Christie said Maine is on the short list of states where the national organization’s ability to raise and spend money will be critical.

The chairman of the Democrats’ group, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, held a conference call with reporters earlier Wednesday. In addition to attacking LePage, he pledged support for LePage’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud.

While never naming Michaud or independent candidate Eliot Cutler, Christie said LePage’s gubernatorial record will prove that he is the superior candidate. He said he and LePage have similar, plain-spoken styles that are often misinterpreted as harsh or bullying.

“I think people all the time confuse folks who are honest and direct in politics,” Christie said. “The fact is, they’re not used to that. They’re used to people who are blow-dried and focus-group tested, giving you answers that sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher from the old ‘Peanuts.’ They all sound the same. The one thing they can’t say about Gov. LePage and I is that we sound like everyone else. We don’t.”

Aside from their tough-talking style, LePage and Christie are similar in at least one other respect: both are Republicans governing states that have recently favored Democrats.

“We’re not supposed to ever win in places like this,” Christie said, adding that early polls show LePage leading the race. “The people of Maine know who he is, they trust him, they like him, and as far as his opponents are concerned, they’re going to have to tell people how they’d run Maine better, and I don’t think they can run Maine better than Gov. LePage has.”

Most early, nonpartisan polls actually show the race a statistical dead heat between LePage and Michaud, with Cutler trailing.

Christie, still viewed by many as a likely presidential contender in 2016 despite a scandal over whether his office was responsible for causing a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge last year as political retribution, used some language geared toward a national office.

When a reporter asked Christie about his decision to support Medicaid expansion in New Jersey, while LePage has stood fast against it in Maine, Christie used it as an opportunity to extol the virtues of Republican leadership.

He said the Republican Governors Association’s position all along has been to allow governors to decide on Medicaid expansion based on what’s best for their states – not on the national party’s dictate.

“I agree with Governor LePage on the decision he made,” Christie said. “In our party, we give people the freedom to decide what’s best for you. We don’t necessarily have to agree, because Maine is different than New Jersey, is different than New Mexico.”

Earlier in the day, the Democratic Governors Association launched a pre-emptive attack on Christie and LePage, saying both are bullies famous more for their tirades than good governance.

Accompanied by Maine Senate Majority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, Shumlin called LePage out as an embarrassment to the state.

“Mainers need a governor they can be proud of, someone who will work with Democrats, Republicans, independents in a real, simple way to create jobs and opportunities,” Shumlin said.

Outside the diner, LePage rebuffed the claim. He said that each of the four times he has met with Democratic leaders in the past three years, he has been the one to call the meeting.

“Communication goes both ways,” he said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MattByrnePPH