Jeb turns up heat on Christie
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With Chris Christie set to discuss a potential presidential bid with his family over the holidays, Jeb Bush’s early moves in the GOP field may ratchet up the heat on the New Jersey governor.

The former Florida governor’s announcement this week that he’s “actively exploring” a presidential bid impacts Christie and his timeline for his own decision because the two have overlapping needs.

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“You know Christie has a plan in place, but this puts pressure on him to accelerate the implementation of that plan, especially if Bush starts to pick up any kind of traction,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

 “The race to be the establishment candidate is happening now, it’s in full swing. Christie has to get moving.” 

That means the fight for money, high-profile backers, and top-flight campaign staffers is on between the heavyweight establishment candidates, and it’s Bush that’s been the more aggressive candidate in the early going.

“Bush and Christie are competing for similar supporters and donors and they run in the same establishment party circles,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.

Political strategists say Christie can be believed when he says his decision to run remains independent of Bush’s decision, and there’s likely enough money for both of them in the early going.

Bush will tap his deep family political ties and donor network from Florida to Texas. Christie, meanwhile, has proved himself a prodigious fundraiser as head of the Republican Governors Association, and he has a lock on the lucrative New Jersey to New York cash pipeline. 

“I think Christie assumed Jeb was running and was already reaching out to people in anticipation of that,” Williams said. “He’s been laying the groundwork almost since President Obama was reelected, so he has that network of support in place that will help if he decides to run. His core supporters won’t be swayed by Bush, but if you’re on the fence, you’re taking stock of both of them right now.” 

But Christie, whose term as governor doesn't expire until 2017, is reaching the point where he’ll have to decide to fully take the plunge and leave the job he loves for the national stage. He’s also hamstrung on the fundraising end to some degree because of laws that forbid him from taking campaign cash from firms in his home state while he remains in office.

In a field with more than a dozen candidates presently mulling bids, and one that many view as the strongest Republicans have put forward in years, every dollar is going to count.

“They’re working to corner those donors,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “You’re talking about maybe having eight or nine candidates in the race. They’re all looking to have enough money to make it the whole way through, and they’ll all want to go big in Florida, which is hugely expensive.”

Bush and Christie are viewed as the top tier of candidates expected to slug it out for the establishment mantle and the right to go head to head with one of the slew of potential contenders whose paths to the nomination go through the conservative base.

Polls right now show both near the top of the field, thanks in large part to their strong name IDs. Still, both suffer from low support levels among the kinds of conservative voters who turn out in force in the early-voting primary and caucus states.

In a Marist College survey released this week, Bush and Christie came in first and third out of a 14 candidate field, but among Tea Party supporters, both finished behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas). 

Bush’s potential candidacy has been received coolly from many in conservative circles. While his supporters tout his record as Florida governor as something conservatives of all stripes should be able to get on board with, he’s run afoul of that wing of the party on education and immigration.

And Christie is still viewed skeptically by many conservatives who were rankled by his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy at the peak of the 2012 election.

They’ll both need to maximize their support among more centrist-minded supporters.  Strategists don’t believe there are enough middle-of-the-road voters to propel more than one establishment candidate through the primaries. 

“Early states are going to whittle down the field to one establishment candidate and one Tea Party candidate who will emerge,” Williams said. “That’s how it works. In 2012, you had a number of upstarts, but at the end of the day it was Mitt [Romney] versus Rick [Santorum].”

The establishment candidate who makes inroads with conservative-leaning Republicans could have a leg up. And here at least, it’s Christie that’s been the more aggressive of the two. 

While Bush has bristled at the notion of playing to the primary and appears ready to run a take-it-or-leave-it campaign, Christie has been reaching out to the Tea Party wing.

The New Jersey governor appeared at Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) annual pheasant hunt and fundraiser in Iowa earlier this year, a touchstone for any Republican candidate. He’ll be back in Iowa next month for another summit hosted by King, which will also feature Tea Party stars like Cruz, Huckabee, Carson, Santorum, and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Christie might be a perfect establishment foil for Bush in this regard. Much of the public has gotten to know him through short clips of him firing back at liberal attacks or forcefully defending his record, and that’s something conservatives love.

“Christie stands out because of his strong leadership and willingness to take head on unions and other entrenched special interests,” said Jeanette Hoffman, a Republican strategist from New Jersey. “He has a strong leadership style when compared to other candidates out there. He turns heads and makes people take notice and he’s tapped into what conservatives think. They like his common sense approach to leadership.”

While he’s burnished a brand for himself as a fighter willing to mix it up, that goes both ways. 

“Christie cannot be out there getting into arguments with everyone,” Bonjean said.

Republicans are eager to find out how Bush responds to Christie on the campaign trail. They say it was a smart move for him to get involved early because it’s been a while since he ran for office and the political landscape has changed dramatically in the interim. 

Because of that, he'll need to make the most of his head start.

“Bush needed the head start, not just from the organizational and money standpoint, but also from the campaign standpoint and reminding people who he is from last time he was on the ballot,” O’Connell said. “Christie hoped his timeline wouldn’t get pushed up, but here it is. This definitely changes the calculus for him.”