Can Chris Christie win the GOP nomination?

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running for re-election in November. But his real battle may come in 2016...
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running for re-election in November. But his real battle may come in 2016...

In a general election against Clinton or Biden, he's probably the party's best option. But the moderate Christie might not be able to survive the primaries.

There's a new "Happy Warrior" on the political scene — and an unlikely one, since critics have long called him a bully with anger-control issues.

But consider Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.): He has repeatedly clashed with conservatives in his party over his more moderate positions and unapologetic willingness to reach across the aisle. His national media appearances poking fun at himself have bolstered his national image, and a recent poll declared him the only potential 2016 candidate with presidential election crossover appeal. But can he seriously hope to get his litmus-test-fixated party's nomination?

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You can make the case either way. But one thing is for sure: Christie's national profile is growing faster than his impacted-by-weight-loss-surgery waistline is shrinking.

"Happy Warrior" — a phrase first used in a poem by William Woodsworth — has been applied to politicians who ooze the love and joy of politicking, like Democrats Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republicans Ronald Reagan and John McCain. That's a major turnaround for Christie, who has a full page of YouTube videos featuring him cutting short or raging at critical constituents or the press. How did he change? An event beyond his control softened his image.

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It came in October, right before the 2012 election, when Christie — then a prominent Mitt Romney surrogate — accompanied President Barack Obama on a tour of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Christie profusely praised Obama's response. Many GOPers felt Christie's positive words doomed Romney's campaign. Talk show hosts were furious. Rush Limbaugh called Christie "fat and a fool" — but Christie stuck by his comments. Christie's name was thrust into the political headlines again in March when CPAC made a point of not inviting him to speak — and an unnamed CPAC member said Christie had a "limited future" in the GOP.

Despite being persona non grata with the far right, Christie's career looks increasingly promising. The Daily Caller notes that Christie is 30 points ahead of New Jersey Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono in his re-election campaign and added this:

Christie, meanwhile, continues to rise as a national political figure with appeal across party lines. Though New Jersey has traditionally harbored pockets of Republican strength, it is now among the bluest of blue states, making Christie’s popularity all the more striking. [Daily Caller]

This could make Christie more appealing to the GOP in the future. Plus, he is proving to be a master of the media and shows the mark of a true professional politician. Everyone knows he's playing hardball, but he insists he isn't — and he gets away with it. He's going negative against Buono in ads. As she attacks him on guns, he's taking money from the NRA. Meanwhile, Democrats are crying foul because he and his family are appearing in some federally funded tourism promotion commercials which many believe give him an unfair advantage. His response as reported in the Newark Star Ledger:

"I don't see any advantage due or undue to me. I'm doing my job and if I was unwilling to appear in those ads in my view that would be me putting politics and concern for criticism ahead of doing my job the right way and I'm not going to do that."

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In a national PPP survey, "Christie earns favorable ratings across political ideologies, something that hasn't been seen in a potential presidential nominee since Republican John McCain in 2008," says The Atlantic. "He is the only potential 2016 candidate who earns favorable views across party lines, something that PPP never found in the 2012 presidential race, according to the firm's director Tom Jensen."

The poll suggests that Christie would be the GOP's best bet to beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — but that his candidacy could also be doomed. Why? He's struggling with Republicans. Indeed, his net favorability ratings are behind potential 2016 contenders Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and his favorable-to-unfavorable ratings among Republicans have gone from 57-25 in December to 41-27 today. That's an 18-point swing.

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Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, writing in The Daily Beast, concludes Christie may be unable to get the nomination in a party that chooses true believers over pragmatists:

[H]e's authentic, he's appealing and he could give Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden a genuine race. How much does that matter to Republicans? Christie is far behind, in third place in the GOP field, in the saner arena of New Hampshire. We will soon test whether Steve Schmidt is right — or whether an alienated core of the GOP would rather be far right than elected president, whether in the journalist Jill Lawrence's telling phrase, Christie is "a Republican without a party." [Daily Beast]

Still, sometimes when a party dominated by one wing is badly defeated nationally, another wing rises to take its place. This is what happened with Bill Clinton and the centrist "third way" Democrats in 1992. If a Tea Party-dominated GOP goes down in flames in the 2016 presidential election, guess who'd still be young enough to give his party a big, fat "I told you so" — and be there in 2020 to pick up the pieces?

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Count Christie out as a future GOP presidential candidate? As they say in New Jersey: "Fuggeddabouddit."

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