When one thinks of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, acrobatics might not be the first term that comes to mind.
But if rumors are true and the booming Republican governor does indeed plan to seek the GOP's presidential nomination in 2016, he'll need to perform an impressive circus trick: both building off the centrist support he's earned in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and repairing relations with an increasingly skeptical Republican base that sees his embrace of President Obama just days before the election as a betrayal.
But Christie's everyman, bipartisan approach to the hurricane recovery — which saw both him and President Obama heaping reciprocal praise upon one another — has paid off at the polls. A Rutgers-Eagleton survey released Wednesday showed that Christie's favorability ratings had jumped 19 points since the storm's landfall, with 81 percent saying Christie had demonstrated "needed cooperation and bipartisanship" with the president. Meanwhile, in a Quinnipiac poll of neighboring New York, 89 percent of voters surveyed applauded Christie's response to the storm.
While rising poll numbers are rarely something for a politician to bemoan, Christie's improving numbers are interpreted by many on the right as evidence that the New Jersey governor put his own political interest ahead of the party's. Coupled with a keynote address at the Republican National Convention that suffered from a similar criticism — Romney was not mentioned in that speech until 16 minutes in — and his decision not to campaign with the Republican presidential candidate in the weekend before Election Day, Christie is at risk of alienating the crucial base voters that decide presidential primaries.
"There are those Republicans who understand he is doing what he did to help out his state, but there are many more that think this helped President Obama against Mitt Romney," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "Christie has the next couple of years to rehabilitate himself with the conservative base of the Republican electorate."
While many GOP insiders were sympathetic to the idea that Christie was concerned primarily with securing federal assistance for his state — and genuinely appreciative of the president's help — they have also signaled their displeasure with Christie's persistent praise for Obama. They also looked skeptically at reports that Christie e-mailed, but did not call, Romney in the immediate aftermath of the election, and frequently cite a press conference where Christie went out of his way to dismiss Romney campaign staff as “know-nothing” and “disgruntled.”
"Sure, he might have a gushing, New Jersey personality, but where was that when he was on the stage in Tampa?" said one Republican adviser. "Chris is going to have to make some choices, but it's clear that his biggest issue is the optics, and mending fences with the donors and surrogates who feel shunned."
But Republican strategists also admit that Christie is doing what is necessary to win re-election in 2013. Although Christie has a national profile, he still hails from a state where President Obama bested Mitt Romney by 17 percentage points. In 2009, Christie only narrowly beat Gov. John Corzine, an extremely unpopular incumbent and former CEO of Goldman Sachs who was facing re-election just a year after the financial market collapse. Next year, Christie could face a challenge from popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a rising star in the Democratic Party likely to draw fundraising support from across the country.
“Right now his job is to win re-election in 2013, and obviously he’s doing what is in his best interests,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “This entire time, he’s been looking over his shoulder at Cory Booker.”
Reelection is crucial not only because a defeated candidate would be a tough sell to primary voters, but because Christie is in line to co-chair the powerful Republican Governor’s Association in 2014. Assuming that position would give the New Jersey lawmaker reason to travel the country, meet with potential primary voters, and establish a national fundraising base.
Still, each move Christie makes toward the center to the benefit of his gubernatorial campaign provides ammunition for his hypothetical primary opponents in Iowa and South Carolina.
“The kind of race you have to run to get reelected in New Jersey is probably not that helpful for a Republican primary,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak.
There’s evidence that Christie is working behind the scenes to repair any damage he could be causing with the Republican base. According to a report in the New York Times, Christie spent much of an RGA meeting last week in Las Vegas making amends and explaining his actions to colleagues and donors.
Strategists also say that Christie’s transgressions could have been more severe. For one, Mitt Romney was never particularly loved by the Republican base, and so slights against him are not treated with the same anger that might otherwise have befallen Christie. Voters, strategists say, are also likely to have short enough attention spans that the stumbles of 2012 will not weigh heavily on a 2016 primary.
Moreover, the Republican Party is mired in a period of self-reflection following Democrats’ resounding victories earlier this month. If primary voters conclude that a centrist, postpartisan candidate would best equip them to overcome changing demographics, Christie’s positioning might have an unique appeal.
Christie’s presidential hopes might hinge on something completely outside his control: who else decides to vie for the Republican nomination. The Republican electorate showed in 2012 that a well-financed, big-profile candidate could emerge from a weak primary field even without the support of the conservative base. But the Republican bench looks much deeper for 2016, with potential bids from former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom remain relatively unencumbered by challenges similar to those facing Christie.
“He will stick out in any presidential field as unlike any of the other choices,” said Mackowiak. “If he’s around, that, plus his New York fundraising, reform record, RGA chairmanship, having won a tough re-election in a blue state, will make him a credible first-tier candidate. But we’re going to have to get through 1000 things between now and then.”