Chris Christie’s Conundrum

by Stuart Rothenberg July 29, 2015 · 10:03 AM EDT

On first glance, Christie’s bio and profile should make him a top-tier hopeful for the 2016 Republican nomination. But he isn’t — at least not right now. In this case, timing is everything.

A former county freeholder and U.S. attorney finishing his second term as governor in a very blue state, Christie, 52, is a guy with a big personality who has received more than his share of national media coverage over the past few years.

And if Jeb Bush were not in the GOP race now, the Garden State’s governor might well be regarded as a one of the leading hopefuls in the contest.

But Bush’s mid-December announcement he would explore a run for his party’s presidential nomination and establish a political action committee damaged Christie’s prospects dramatically.

Christie’s gruff, tell-it-like-it-is style may be his calling card and proof that he isn’t simply another politician, but his positioning in the Republican Party’s presidential contest always relied on an appeal to establishment contributors and voters — especially in the Northeast, but elsewhere, as well.

Bush’s earlier-than-expected entry into the presidential race allowed him to line up support from many in the party establishment, and that left little room for Christie, who waited until the last day of June — after the state Legislature adopted a budget — to announce his candidacy.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have a potential path toward the top tier of candidates. But it is a narrow one and probably requires the implosion of the Bush effort. In other words, the path doesn’t exist now but could appear at some point if things break right for the governor.

Some Christie supporters don’t view the GOP race that way. They see the primaries as a fight to emerge as the alternative to Bush, even though the former Florida governor hasn’t separated himself from the pack. They believe Bush’s appeal to the party establishment, his fundraising strength and his family name guarantee he will be in the contest until the end.

They suggest Christie, who opposes legal abortion and stresses his conservative views, has never been part of the Republican establishment and will be as able as anyone in the field to tap into the grass-roots anger at President Barack Obama; Washington, D.C.; and the GOP congressional leadership.

But that assessment assumes Christie can find support among evangelicals, tea party activists and the party’s most conservative elements — quite a stretch given the makeup of the field and the governor’s post-Superstorm Sandy relationship with Obama and his Garden State persona.

Others sympathetic to Christie see the race for the GOP nomination initially as two contests — one in Iowa, where cultural conservatives will fight for position in the caucuses, and one in New Hampshire, where candidates such as Bush, Christie, Marco Rubio and a few others will do battle.

If Bush underperforms in the Granite State (and other early contests) and/or Christie over-performs, the New Jersey governor could well become a major contender for the nomination, they argue quite reasonably.

Of course, it’s far from guaranteed that Christie would be the ultimate beneficiary of a Bush flop, should one occur.

All of Christie’s supporters acknowledge that, ultimately, a large part of the governor’s appeal is personal. They insist he is impressing voters in the early states with his command of issues and specific proposals, drawing good reviews from attendees who started out skeptical but warmed to the candidate after seeing and hearing him.

But Donald Trump’s success, which relies on a style that is similar to Christie’s, undercuts the New Jersey governor’s uniqueness and may cause establishment voters to look for a candidate who is more diplomatic and polished in his approach.

Recent national polls generally show Christie drawing in the low single digits in the race for his party’s nomination, placing him often in ninth or 10th place. That could be a problem since only the top 10 candidates in polling conducted before the first sanctioned debate, on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, will appear onstage.

Candidates who aren’t on the stage in Cleveland have an extra burden than those who appear in the debate. The also-rans must convince potential contributors and endorsers — and the media horde covering the race — that they are viable candidates.

Of course, Iowa isn’t really Christie territory. His campaign is more focused on New Hampshire, where independents can vote in primaries and social issues are historically less important to voters.

Christie has a talented team of consultants and strategists, but so do many of the other candidates. He has a super PAC, but so do the other candidates. He has opinions, promises, ideas, a big personality and a record. But so do the other candidates.

Ultimately, Chris Christie’s potential in the race comes down to his own appeal. He’s worth watching, but he’ll need some help from other candidates in the race to become a top-tier hopeful.