Chris Christie’s big dilemma came into sharp focus on Thursday.
The New Jersey governor and possible 2016 White House contender signed 10 gun control bills into law but took no action on another five, more controversial measures.
Christie has not tipped his hand as to whether he will sign or veto the other five bills, which include an outright ban on the sale of the highest caliber rifle currently available to civilians.
Christie's handling of the gun bills was just another day of walking a fine line.
On one hand, he wants to win reelection in his increasingly blue state this November with as resounding a margin as possible and preserve his cross-party appeal on the national stage.
On the other, he is widely believed to be shaping up for a 2016 White House bid. He therefore needs to maintain his viability with the GOP base if he is to get through the primary process. And segments of that base have come to regard him with growing suspicion.
A year ago, the Christie brand looked tailor-made for a GOP in need of a new standard-bearer. He was the brash, sometimes abrasive governor who took the fight to labor unions, Democrats and the media alike.
But some conservatives contend that, of late, Christie has been much too inclined to burnish his centrist credentials.
Signing the gun bills Thursday was one example. But his most high-profile apostasies, by far, were his appearances with President Obama, the first in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy and again in late May. Those images are certain to find their way into the TV ads of intraparty rivals if Christie does run for the White House.
“I think among activists, there was a lot of excitement about him, but in the last eight months or so, people have kind of soured on him, having cosied up to Obama,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa who runs a website called TheIowaRepublican.
“I don’t think they would necessarily write him off, but they would look at him more skeptically.”
Polls highlight the disconnect between GOP primary voters and the public at large.
A Quinnipiac poll released Monday that measured the favorability ratings of various politicians had Christie first in the nation among all voters, besting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who came second, and President Obama, who was fourth. (Third place went to another Democrat, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.)
Among Republican voters, however, Christie trailed in eighth. Among those who beat him were potential 2016 rivals, including Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
A Pew Research poll released at the start of this month found Christie was viewed favorably by 47 percent of Republican registered voters but unfavorably by a full 30 percent. Paul racked up a much better 55 percent to 19 percent favorable-unfavorable split.
Christie’s recent public spat with Paul over national security — which some saw as a test run for a primary fight — divided conservative opinion.
Some believed that Christie had delivered a deserved comeuppance to the leading libertarian in the party while others contended that the exchanges seemed petty.
“I can’t shake my dismay at Gov. Chris Christie’s comments ... on those who question and challenge what we know or think we do about the American national security state,” Peggy Noonan — hardly known as a dedicated Paul-ite — wrote afterward in The Wall Street Journal.
Plenty of people see Christie’s outsized personality and apparent candor as an electoral advantage.
“He is authentic. He is the real deal,” said Dan Judy, a Republican operative with North Star Opinion Research. “He does not come across as the kind of politician who panders.”
Former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen was even more scathing of the Christie skeptics on the right of the party. Alluding to the complaints about Christie’s joint appearances with Obama, he said:
“There are some Republicans who know Christie is not a right-wing conservative, and they are going to be opposed to him regardless — they are going to find a pretext. But my view is that the Republican Party is going to be hungry for a candidate who can win in 2016. And with that, they may be more willing to back a candidate who does not line up with them on every issue.”
In the past two presidential cycles, the GOP has turned away from candidates who enthused the most passionate members of its base, only to see candidates perceived as more electable lose to Obama.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee fell to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008. Four years later, Santorum lost to Mitt Romney.
“This is a theory created by the media every election cycle: ‘It’s Rudy Giuliani, it’s John McCain, it’s Chris Christie, it’s Mitt Romney!’ Time and time again, it plays out that, no, they’re not [more electable],” said Robinson.
“I get the argument that Chris Christie is a moderate from a blue state who can reach across the aisle, blah, blah,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson. “We just ran that experiment.”
There is no sign that these debates about Christie’s conservative bona fides will subside anytime soon. And that suits Democrats just fine.
“The problem for him is that, if he runs, he will probably have to move drastically to the right to get through the primary,” said New Jersey Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky.
“If a general election were held tomorrow, I think he’d be a very strong national candidate. But if it’s held after he’s gone through the cannibalization of a Republican primary, he may not be.”