TAMPA, Fla. -- South Carolina is not a swing state. Solidly Republican, it will vote for Mitt Romney by a large margin this November. With so many other states hanging in the balance, Team Romney doesn't need to spend any time campaigning in South Carolina.

So why would Gov. Chris Christie, a top Romney supporter and surrogate as well as the GOP convention's keynote speaker, take time out of an extremely busy convention week schedule to visit the South Carolina delegation? It wasn't easy; the delegates stayed in a hotel far, far away from the GOP gathering site in downtown Tampa. But Christie made the trek.

The answer might have something to do with the fact that South Carolina is a hugely important state in the early presidential primaries. "We pick presidents," South Carolina Republicans like to say, and indeed, with the exception of Newt Gingrich this year, every winner of their primary has gone on to capture the GOP nomination.

So when a national politician visits South Carolinians, that visit usually has "presidential ambition" written all over it. And Christie's appearance Thursday morning certainly felt like a full-scale campaign stop.

Beyond discussing issues at stake in the election and his own experience as keynote speaker, Christie talked openly about strengthening his connections to this key early state.

"I've enjoyed all the time I've spent in South Carolina," he told the group, which included delegates, members of Congress and top state politicos. "And I intend to be back, even do a town hall meeting in South Carolina. Bring the Christie town halls on the road." As the crowd applauded, Christie said the press back home -- "so parochial," he called them -- can't grasp how South Carolinians could embrace a guy from New Jersey. It's not hard, Christie explained: "Ideas are more powerful than geography."

Christie charmed the crowd when he told a funny, self-effacing story about the day last October when Mitt and Ann Romney came to his house to ask for his endorsement in the Republican race. When he got the call, Christie said he and his wife, working parents with four children, looked at each other in panic; their first thought was "Oh my God, we've got to clean this house."

Christie spoke at length, describing how his 12-year-old son, on in-line skates, zoomed up to Romney and screeched to a halt about a foot before running into the soon-to-be GOP nominee. It was the kind of personal tale, told with humor and warmth, that can really win a room. And it did.

In an interview afterward, Christie denied the visit had anything to do with political ambitions. "No," he said. "It's about who invited me. I got an invitation."

But Christie gets lots of invitations. Why pick this one? "People will speculate about my career for as long as I'm around," Christie answered. "No matter how many times I told people I wasn't running for president, nobody believed me. I wasn't. As many times as I told people I didn't want to be vice president, they didn't believe me. I didn't want to be. People will speculate all they like, but for me, what's most important is what you actually do, and I've worked very hard for Gov. Romney, I have great faith in him, I consider him a great friend, and I think he's going to be the next president."

There was nothing in that answer to deny any designs on higher office.

Future GOP hopefuls are walking a fine line. Preparing a 2016 run would mean assuming Romney loses. That can't be done, at least publicly. So hopefuls work for the ticket and lay the foundation for 2020. Of course, if Romney does lose, they'll be ready for '16.

"This is one of the few places you can network and start laying the groundwork for whatever happens later on," says Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman who attended the breakfast. "We certainly expect and anticipate that Gov. Romney will be the next president, and we're all going to work very hard. But I've never seen a politician miss a chance to come into an audience that is an early primary state, and not put those feelers out."

Christie wasn't the only up-and-comer to pay his respects to South Carolina. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio visited the delegates on Tuesday. And South Carolina wasn't the only state to receive attention. Christie's schedule also included a visit to the New Hampshire delegation.

The 2012 finale may still be two months away, but 2016 and 2020 are already here.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.