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Why Chris Christie's Popularity May Tear His Party Apart

Gov. Chris Christie visits with students at Jose Marti Freshman Academy in Union City, N.J., on Wednesday.
Rich Schultz
Gov. Chris Christie visits with students at Jose Marti Freshman Academy in Union City, N.J., on Wednesday.

Chris Christie has become a national phenomenon.

His " crushing margin" for re-election as governor of New Jersey on Tuesday has landed him on the cover of Time. He's now considered a " leading contender" for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Christie clearly has the attention of the national media, as well as his mostly likely rivals. But a bigger question is how well his message and persona will play in the critical states that vote early in the process.

That picture is decidedly mixed.

"I think he's DOA in South Carolina," says Daniel Encarnacion, state secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a libertarian group. "The perception is, he is just too moderate for the average, everyday South Carolina voter."

The split in early opinion about Christie — that he has the best potential to open up an electoral map that has favored Democrats in recent elections, as opposed to the conviction that he is simply not conservative enough to lead today's GOP — is an important phenomenon that may come to dominate the 2016 race.

Republicans, who historically have tended to coalesce around an early front-runner, face the kind of intraparty schism that has been more common for the Democratic Party in the past.

Christie is likely to be far and away the favorite of the "establishment" — or money — wing of the party, but he still has a long way to go to win over the hearts and minds of rank-and-file conservatives who have yet to settle on a champion.

"I have a feeling that through the process, you'll have a hard-line conservative candidate emerge as a front-runner and a mainstream conservative, and it's likely to come down to one of each of those," says Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa GOP chairman.

Why Christie Rankles

Christie holds conservative positions on many issues, including abortion. He withdrew his state from a regional climate change initiative, as well as from a multibillion-dollar federal infrastructure project. He has also prided himself on taking on public-sector unions.

Yet conservatives aren't convinced that, at heart, he's one of them. The very things that helped him win big in New Jersey — working with the Democratic legislative majority and his handling of Superstorm Sandy, during which he praised President Obama for the federal response — have made him suspect to some on the right.

Unlike many of his Republican peers, Christie accepted the expansion of Medicaid in his state under the Affordable Care Act, which is anathema to conservatives.

Christie vetoed a bill giving in-state tuition rates to young people in the country without documentation, but he angered conservatives by suggesting in a recent speech that he'd changed course on the issue.

Similarly, they're dismayed that while he vetoed a same-sex marriage law, he dropped a court challenge on the issue. At a news conference Wednesday, Christie said of gay couples getting married in his state, "I'm happy for them, if they're happy."

"When you're kind of all over the place, seemingly blowing with the wind, that's where rank-and-file conservatives ask, 'Who is this guy, really?' " says Matt Reisetter, a GOP consultant in Iowa.

Just Win, Baby

In 2011, a group of Iowa businessmen flew to New Jersey in hopes of persuading Christie to run for president. They were convinced, like many others, that he was the party's best hope for beating Obama.

Many feel similarly, looking ahead to 2016. With the GOP having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, many party elders feel that it's time, as Christie himself says, to try to win elections rather than trying to win arguments by staying pure.

"A lot of Republicans up here would like to see someone nominated who has a chance to win," says Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and longtime political operative in the state. "One of the great attractions of Gov. Christie would be his ability to expand the electoral map and make us competitive in places where we're not competitive."

Of the early states, New Hampshire offers Christie the most favorable territory. Its primary electorate tends to be broader and less religious than those found in Iowa or South Carolina, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

"Right now, he gets the most votes among Republicans in our polls," Smith says. "But he's also tied as one of the Republicans the most people wouldn't vote for under any circumstances."

The Romney Hangover

People who wanted Christie to run last time around believed he would be a stronger candidate than Mitt Romney. As he prepares to run in 2016, one of the problems Christie has to deal with is the party's lingering disappointment with Romney.

"The same people who didn't like the establishment candidate Romney are going to have similar problems with Christie," says Scott Huffmon, a pollster and political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "They really want to see strong conservative bona fides down here."

Conservative voters will be skeptical about claims about Christie's electability, Huffmon says.

"There will be the people who say going with what experts predicted would be the safe route has lost us the White House two times in a row, and we're not going to go down that path again," he says.

Arguing The Party's Path

This debate has happened before. In 1964 and 1980, conservatives were unhappy about having been saddled with losing nominees they perceived as too moderate in earlier cycles and insisted on nominating one of their own.

That worked out well for the party in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president, but not so well in 1964, when Barry Goldwater suffered one of the biggest defeats in modern history.

Now, the same type of argument within the party about whether Christie is too moderate or represents the party's best chance of winning is only just beginning.

"There are a lot of people I know who will be very excited about [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz," says Grubbs, the former Iowa GOP chairman. "But there are an equal number of people who will be very excited about a Christie type."

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.