WASHINGTON — When one election booth closes, another one opens. Now that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been re-elected, he begins his race for the White House. Wherever he falls in the ultimate order of GOP candidates trying to win their party’s nomination, he will occupy a familiar historical spot: the untested juggernaut.
Christie’s advantages for the 2016 presidential race are many: He’s a media darling, can raise boatloads of cash, has a plausible nomination story, and he’s an exciting and forceful personality. But like other high-expectation candidates, he has also never been tested in the unique crucible of a presidential campaign. Christie is a volatile hothead about to enter a process that makes the most even-tempered fly off the handle. Primaries are irritating, petty and grueling, and 2016 could be particularly brutish if it turns out to be the grand reckoning in the GOP’s civil war over the soul of the party.
The Christie bedtime story being sold by his staff is that he can do for Republicans nationally what he has done for New Jersey. He can govern as a conservative, even in a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, and win bipartisan love along the way. In a country thirsty for pragmatism and progress, he is the top dog among Republican governors selling themselves as the competent conservative cousins to the backward and grumpy relations in Congress. After losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, Republicans are hungry for success and they want a winner. “Sometimes, I feel like our party cares more about winning the argument than they care about winning elections. And if you don’t win elections, you can’t govern,” Christie told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
If you need proof of what the alternative strategy looks like, Gov. Christie would like to introduce you to the darling of the party’s hard-core conservatives, Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli — the governor of nothing at all. It’s a compelling pitch, but it isn’t going to spare Christie a fight that will test his temperament. In Christie’s case, grassroots Republicans are trying to look into candidates’ souls and Christie’s can be a volatile place. Bombast and periodic eruptions are part of Christie’s act, but what is that going to look like when he pops off at some conservative activist who corners him in a windowless ballroom at a Lincoln Day Dinner?
He’s pro-life and against gay marriage, which would suggest he should fare well with cultural conservatives. His trouble will come from his request for relief money to fight the effects of Hurricane Sandy and accepting federal Medicaid money as a part of the Affordable Care Act. The overarching worry among conservatives will be that no matter what the issue, a man who makes such a fetish of his ability to work with Democrats is going to sell out conservatives in the end.
Embedded in Christie’s argument for his presidential candidacy is a jab at grassroots conservatives. The purists don’t get it, he has argued; Republicans need to win elections to get their policies enacted, and if they insist on purity they’ll never nominate anyone who can get elected. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that if you run and stand on principle you bring voters to you.
There are other reasons conservatives are suspicious of Christie. He has all the wrong friends. The media like Christie and so does the establishment. Those who anticipate Christie will abandon them in the end point to his self-centered 2012 convention speech and his embrace of President Barack Obama in the late days of the campaign.
So who will fill the ABC (Anybody But Christie) slot, and will they be able to lay a glove on him? There’s no clear choice, but in the 2012 contest voters cycled through a series of Anybody But Romney misfits, suggesting that activists will back pretty much anyone if they run as the anti-establishment figure.
Will all of this infighting doom Christie? Only if he lets it. He enters the next level of 2016 speculation facing three options: He blows up like Rudy Giuliani and Rick Perry, he warps himself to please the base like McCain and Romney, or he gets in a life-and-death struggle and emerges to win the general election the way George Bush did in 2000.
McCain, a born fighter, rescued his campaign in 2008 in part because he had been through the presidential slog before. But McCain, like Romney, also warped himself and his message in the GOP primary process in order to appeal to conservative voters. That undermined his general election appeal. Christie doesn’t seem to be taking that route. Christie will likely run against the Democrats whose votes he’s been courting, arguing that his ability to get anything conservative done in a blue state shows he can stick to his principles.
George W. Bush’s challenge didn’t come from the right, but from McCain in the middle. Bush emerged from the contest honed and sharpened — and with few lasting scars that his opponent could exploit.
That’s not going to happen this time. The reverse is more likely: Christie surfs the Civil War, allowing those competing on his right to punch themselves out and leave him standing.
That will take a lot of patience and thick skin. His training begins now.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.
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