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Chris Christie's 2016 tightrope walk
New Jersey's Republican governor is among the frontrunners for the GOP nomination. But can he win back the conservative base without losing his moderate appeal?
 
Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) is a near-lock to win re-election in November. The presidential race is an entirely different story.
Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) is a near-lock to win re-election in November. The presidential race is an entirely different story. Alex Wong/Getty Images

If you hear a grinding sound, it may be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shifting gears to run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He's clearly gearing up — as evidenced by his shoring up of political positions, aggressive outreach to both party pragmatists and the conservative base, criticizing of Republican rivals, and attempts to straighten conservative noses still out of joint from the well-publicized independent streak he displayed during former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's ill-fated 2012 campaign.

A Quinnipiac poll earlier this month found Christie to be America's hottest politician. But it's a delicate task for him to keep his centrist branding while wooing at least a portion of the conservatives he'd need to win primaries. So Christie is playing political chess. In a bid to boost his conservative bona fides, Christie recently refused to sign three gun control bills, prompting The Nation's Zoe Carpenter to write that Christie's "pivot from moderate governor to contestant in the GOP presidential primaries is underway." Christie is not veering right on every issue, though. Continuing his long-running moderate streak, Christie signed a law making New Jersey the second state after California to ban gay conversion therapy, and eased restrictions on medical marijuana. Here's Michelle Cottle at The Daily Beast on Christie's "delicate social issues dance":

And so the governor's great challenge is to navigate these issues with sufficient grace and subtlety that his fancy footwork goes unnoticed. Turning himself around, without appearing to. That's what it's all about. That's what it's always about. [The Daily Beast]

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin watched Christie visit a school in Camden, N.J., and noted his rhetorical restraint and warm reception among blue-state African-Americans who, by and large, wouldn't ordinarily vote for a Republican. "He wants to win [re-election] and win big," Rubin wrote. "Then, he can begin to entertain the idea of a presidential run. What I saw today suggests the sort of rhetoric and agenda we're likely to see if he does run for president. Others may be rhetorically more dogmatic, but few politicians in the GOP can say they've done what Christie has in the deepest of blue states."

Meanwhile, Christie is involved in an ongoing war of words with potential 2016 rival Rand Paul over conservativism's future. TIME brands this "a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party that is split at the seam on the proper role of the American government at home and abroad." When Christie told Republican leaders, "We are not a debating society.... We are a political operation that needs to win.... I want to win," it was widely seen as a slam at Paul's libertarian ideas. Christie's speech wowed Republican establishment types: "It was impressive. I forgot about the Obama bear hug," Tennessee GOP Chairman Chris Devaney told CNN.

Devaney, of course, was referring to the waning days of the 2012 campaign, when Christie praised President Obama for rushing to help New Jersey on Hurricane Sandy, and declined to appear at a key Mitt Romney rally. National Review's Robert Costa notes that ever since then, Christie's relationship with the GOP's political class "has been uneasy — he's been seen not as a traitor, necessarily, but as a too-clever-by-half operator who didn't do all he could for the nominee. The image of Christie happily hugging President Obama on the tarmac — and being AWOL for Romney, right as he was slipping in the polls — was seared into the consciousness of the conservative elite." In the months since, Christie has been quietly working to mend those fences.

Christie's inner circle has taken the complaints seriously, fearing their implications ahead of the 2016 presidential election. For the past nine months, they have quietly labored behind the scenes to woo the party's skeptical power brokers. Their maneuvers have included huddles with Republican moneymen, off-the-record powwows with conservative journalists, and late-night conversations with past backers. Officially, such sessions with national Republicans and figures of the right are considered part of Christie's re-election campaign, but his playbook is filled with the broader, tacit push for his political rehabilitation. [National Review]

Christie's road to political redemption won't be without bumps. A new Monmouth University poll shows that his lead over Democrat Barbara Buono in the November election has dropped by 10 percent, and he's losing Democratic support. Nate Silver warns: "According to just about every reported piece on the matter, the Christie camp wants to win by a massive margin. The type of margin that proves Christie can broaden the Republican coalition and force even the most reluctant conservatives to pay attention. But if Christie keeps bleeding Democrats, he might not get his wish."

Romney's problem was that as he frantically tried moving right over the years, he wound up with more positions than the Kama Sutra. Christie's appeal and persona have always been that he says what he thinks, and lets the chips fall where they may. Can he maintain this appeal and retain the center while also trying to ease Republican conservatives' distrust and fears?

 
Joe Gandelman is a syndicated columnist for Cagle Cartoons and is the editor of The Moderate Voice blog.

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