2016 hopefuls catch Ebola flak

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Potential 2016 presidential hopefuls are facing political peril as they grapple with the spread of Ebola in their backyards.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) encountered those exposed risks this weekend as he faced fierce criticism from a nurse quarantined in his state after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. 

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), considered a possible Democratic contender or vice presidential pick, appeared with Christie on Friday to emphasize the risks of the virus. After facing criticism, on Sunday night he walked back a stringent Ebola quarantine protocol and said medical workers with no contact with Ebola patients could self-quarantine at home.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was initially derided for traveling abroad while the first diagnosis was made in Texas, though he eventually cut his trip short to address the situation.

More broadly, Democrats have used the Christie and Perry incidents to argue Republicans are going too far on Ebola, saying that their calls for travel bans amount to fearmongering intended to turn a health crisis into a political advantage in the midterms and beyond.

"To the extent that this is going to be an issue for the 2016 field, when folks are running around scaring people, being hyperbolic, for what they perceive as their own short-term political gain, that leaves a bad taste in voters' mouths," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin.

Texas Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak admitted that the risk elected officials run in handling the Ebola outbreak is, "do you do too much or do you do too little?"

But the Ebola outbreak is a situation that, with great risk, also offers great reward.

"When there's as much fear and as much misinformation is there is about Ebola, it's hard to make the argument it's risky to do too much," Mackowiak added.

New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf agreed, noting that most people only remember the fallout from inaction.

"They should always err on the side of caution because people remember that. Once someone gets sick, it doesn't matter anymore what the public health experts said," he said.

That's effectively the defense Christie gave of his initial quarantine of nurse Kaci Hickox. She’s since been released, a move critics say was a reversal of his initial policy under duress, but one he says was part of his policy all along.

“If that inconvenienced her for a period of time, that’s what we need to do to protect the public, that’s what we will continue to do,” Christie told The New York Times.

Still, Democrats say the Republican’s handling of the situation is part of a broader trend from Christie of being an absent governor, who has let his state languish economically as he pursues his national ambitions.

New Jersey Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D) said that while he's "very cautious about appearing to politicize Ebola," Christie's record has been spotty, and so on Ebola, “he may be looking for any accomplishment notwithstanding” the public health consensus against the quarantine in his state.

"This is a governor who has largely checked out in his pursuit of the presidency and has attempted to govern the state on auto pilot," Wisniewski said.

Regardless of whether the governors' responses are panned or praised, strategists from both parties saw the overall opportunity to respond as a winner, because it allows these governors to offer an example of their leadership abilities at a time when, Republicans say, the White House hasn't shown any.

"The benefit for governors is the comparison to them versus what is going on nationally — it's an opportunity to set themselves apart," Sheinkopf said.

That's why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) took action, said Timmy Teepell, the governor’s longtime political adviser. Jindal was an early proponent of a travel ban and last week issued an executive order instating restrictions on certain activities for Louisianians returning from Ebola-infected countries, prompting some critics to accuse him of overkill on the issue.

"I think the White House was slow to act on this, and it caused people to be worried. When folks aren't seeing competent leadership at the top, it creates fear," Teepell said.