OXON HILL, Md. - Gov. Christie played up his pugnacious side as he appealed to a conference of conservative activists Thursday, pushing back against the idea that his presidential chances were faltering in the face of early momentum by rivals.

Pledging to wage a "hard, fighting" campaign if he runs, the New Jersey governor drew a contrast with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been seen as a threat to Christie's ability to win the support of establishment Republicans.

"If elites in Washington make backroom deals where they decide who the president is going to be," then Bush is "definitely the front-runner," Christie said at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in this Washington suburb.

But if the nominee is picked by "the people of the United States," who "see someone who looks them in the eye, connects, and is one of them, I'll do OK if I run," Christie said.

Christie was among several potential Republican presidential candidates - including fellow Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana - who spoke Thursday at the conference, which runs several days. Bush will speak Friday.

Christie dismissed national polling placing him near the bottom of the Republican field, calling it irrelevant this far in advance of the 2016 election and noting his two wins in blue New Jersey.

"I'll take my chances on me," he said.

Christie made the comments during a 20-minute question-and-answer session with talk radio host Laura Ingraham, who pressed him on his temperament and conservative credentials.

"Sometimes people need to be told to sit down and shut up," Christie said, defending his verbal takedown of a Sandy protester in October. He drew applause.

He repeatedly slammed the New York Times, attributing critical coverage to attempts by "elite" media to target him. "I don't subscribe, by the way," Christie said in another applause line.

Asked how he matched up with social conservatives, Christie spoke of his "pro-life" record, touting decisions to veto Planned Parenthood funding - "five times," he noted - as an example. In New Jersey, Christie previously explained those vetoes by saying he wanted to avoid duplication of services.

He also faced a question about New Jersey's adoption of the Common Core educational standards, which are unpopular with many conservatives.

Christie - who in 2013 said governors like himself were "leading the change" on Common Core - said Thursday that the rollout of the standards in New Jersey had been "teed up" under Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

"We signed on to try to get funds during a difficult fiscal time," Christie said. But he said he now had regrets about the policy.

Christie continued to steer clear of the immigration debate, answering a question that referred to remarks Bush had made on the topic by talking about economic opportunity.

He called "the hardworking middle class" the "backbone of our society." At another point, he said: "I don't mind rich people at all, but we don't need to be as a party standing up defending them all the time."

Christie has been the subject of media coverage recently for accepting gifts from wealthy friends, including luxury-box tickets from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and a $30,000 family vacation weekend that the Times reported was paid for by King Abdullah of Jordan.

The conservative gathering - where Texas Sen. Ted Cruz roused the crowd Thursday with a call to repeal "every blasted word of Obamacare" - is not natural territory for Christie, who was perceived by some attendees as too moderate.

Nor is it for Bush. Like Christie, he will respond to questions from an interviewer - Fox News' Sean Hannity. While Christie spent his full 20 minutes fielding questions, speakers had the option of delivering remarks before this year's required question-and-answer session.

For those seriously considering a run for president, "our feeling is that . . . it's useful to have some questions in the mix," said Matthew Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Both Walker and Jindal opted to speak before the Q&A, with Walker using his time to lay out an argument for his governorship in Wisconsin, including his battle with unions.

During his question-and-answer session, Walker said that fight - which drew throngs of people to the state Capitol - had prepared him to take on threats like the Islamic State.

"If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world," Walker said.

A spokeswoman later said Walker "was in no way comparing any American citizen to ISIS," the Associated Press reported.

Jindal, who has been facing a budget hole in Louisiana, did not focus on his record as governor, instead highlighting three priorities: Repeal all of Obamacare, remove Common Core "from every classroom," and "win the war against radical Islamic terrorism."

Some attendees had positive impressions of Christie. "He handled himself very well today," said Greg Decker, 60, a computer specialist from Maryland and a member of Tea Party Patriots.

Decker said Christie was "very personable," though he favored Walker, who he saw as "more conservative." He was impressed with Walker's winning a recall election after his push to repeal collective bargaining rights.

Larry Hume, 59, of Arlington, Va., said he was more a fan of Walker, Cruz, or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul but "generally" liked Christie, "principally because he's fighting back."

Christie "doesn't succumb to political correctness as much as some others might," said Hume, an administrative law judge. But "I'm not sure he's the right guy for president."