He has hired specialists in microtargeting who worked for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. He has built a sprawling, 50-state fund-raising network, including major Republican players like Harold Simmons, the billionaire backer of a Karl Rove-led “super PAC” that spent $105 million in the 2012 race.

And he is pouring resources into an effort to attract blacks, Hispanics and women to prove that he is a new kind of Republican.

As Gov. Chris Christie heads for what is expected to be an easy re-election, he is also quietly building a sophisticated political operation that could become the basis for a national campaign. His advisers, while saying the governor is focused on New Jersey, are aiming to run up a huge margin against his Democratic opponent and position Mr. Christie as a formidable figure among Republicans ahead of the next presidential primary…

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

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“The group is there, believe me, and it’s growing by the day, maybe by a factor of 50 times more than what it was in 2011,” Langone tells me. “He’s getting traction with people because people want to win. After 2012, it dawned on a lot of us that we need to have a better candidate, somebody who can connect, and Christie is the person who can do that.” Langone doesn’t make much of criticism of Christie’s handling of Hurricane Sandy: “I know some people say [Christie] got too close to [Obama], but it wasn’t a time for politics and pandering. It was a crisis! I saw it firsthand at NYU’s medical center, and people who get that aren’t unhappy with him.”

Christie has worked diligently to repair his ties to Romney World, which remains influential in national Republican politics. In late March, he had a private dinner with Romney in Boston, and a few days later Romney praised Christie during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Christie then attended Romney’s donor retreat in June, where his aides linked up with Romney’s former finance director, Spencer Zwick, and Romney’s major donors, and courted them at receptions. Last month, he spent time in Las Vegas with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of Romney’s big-dollar supporters during the general election. And for his reelection campaign, he has hired Russ Schriefer, a former Romney adviser and consulting whiz, to produce his campaign ads…

“His early moves have been good,” says Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican operative who managed the McCain-Palin presidential campaign. “He’s now looking at a decisive reelection victory this year in a blue state, and then he becomes chairman of the Republican Governors Association next year, which will enable him to build all of his relationships to an even greater extent than he has done already. There will always be commentary about [the Sandy controversy], but I don’t think a photograph from five years ago will be an issue in a primary that’s driven, as almost all Republican primaries have been, by electability over ideology.”

Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who encouraged Christie to run last year, agrees. In an interview, he tells me Christie remains a top-tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, owing to his willingness to wade into foreign policy and his ability to broaden the Republican coalition. “We’re friendly, and I think extremely highly of him, and he knows I’d be delighted if he became a national candidate,” he says. “Conservatives should recognize his long-term potential.” Christie’s work with Obama during the storm, he acknowledges, “might not have been the high point of his political career, but I was never angry about seeing him do what he needed to do for his state and his reelection.”

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Mitt Romney’s transparent shifts on policy issues undermined voters’ trust in him. Christie would like to go into a general election with as much of his broad popularity and straight-shooter image intact as possible.

And when you read Christie’s attacks on Sen. Rand Paul (R), you can see a preview of his messaging: He said he didn’t have time for a beer summit with Paul because he has a job where ” you are responsible for actually doing things and not just debating.”

If Christie is going to run by contrasting his record of bipartisan legislative accomplishments with Republicans in Congress who have done nothing but “shout into the wind,” as Christie said at last week’s Republican National Committee summer meeting, he’s going to have to embrace his record.

Of course, I might be wrong. We’ll see over the next two years, after Christie cruises to re-election. But we already know that Christie has been a moderate, and we have good reasons to expect that he will remain so.

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“The politics — he got three big audiences he’s got to be worried about: New Jersey, where you have a moderate to left-leaning audience. Soon, he’s going to be worried about Republican caucus-goers (in Iowa). Going to be much more conservative. And then at the end, he’s going to be worried about those swing voters,” said Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, a Republican strategist and former George W. Bush campaign spokeswoman…

“Common sense sells. He’s great on that. He’s a great national candidate. He will be great in a general election, if he makes it that far,” said CNN “Crossfire” host and Republican analyst S.E. Cupp. “The problem will be he will have to get through a primary.”

CNN contributor and New York Times columnist Charles Blow agreed that Christie has some crossover appeal. But his appeal to moderates will hurt him with the hard right in his party.

“This is the kind of Republican that you could get more moderates behind. Maybe you could shave off a few Democrats,” Blow said. “But you cannot escape the Republican primary process and that process is much more conservative than Republicans in general, and definitely much more conservative than the American populace and electorate.”

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“There’s a lot of suspicious conservatives about Christie ever since he embraced Obama in the last go-round, and my sense is he is making it far more difficult than it needs to be” to mount a bid for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016, Republican strategist Ed Rollins said in an interview.

Christie could argue, based on a strong New Jersey re-election win, “that he has the appeal that most traditional Republicans don’t have, particularly in the Northeast,” Rollins said. “But the problem is, he then has to go into Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire and defend those positions. He can’t just dismiss them, and he’ll be facing some very strong candidates who are basically going to hammer him on it.”…

Some party strategists said Christie’s actions demonstrate he’s forging his own path, something that will appeal to Republicans craving a different approach.

“What he’s doing is pretty clever, in that he’s talking to the hearts and minds of Republicans that are still stung by the 2012 loss, but at the same time is putting his own stamp of conservative politics on his governing style in New Jersey,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed, chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Chesapeake Enterprises who ran former Kansas Senator Bob Dole’s 1996 Republican presidential campaign.

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Christie appears poised to win a resounding November victory in his bid for a second term in a deep-blue state. He’s also set to hit the fundraising trail early next year as the head of the Republican Governors Association. In that role, he will have free rein to make the implicit case nationwide that he is the Republican Party’s best hope for retaking the White House…

“The reaction’s been really good — that’s an understatement,” a Christie confidant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told RCP. “More people realize now how incredible the impact of the storm was on the state, and they respect how he handled it. Not everybody is happy about it, but people generally understand that ultimately the Electoral College wasn’t that close, and it’s not what tipped the balance.”…

The GOP operatives who are quietly paving the way for their clients’ potential campaigns have Christie’s potentially fatal weaknesses near the forefront of their minds.

“Chris Christie’s strategy is brilliant — it worked swimmingly for Jon Huntsman,” one Republican consultant said sarcastically. “Being the ‘adult’ in a Republican primary might win you accolades on ‘Morning Joe.’ It will not win you the nomination. I don’t know where his base is — certainly not in the early primary states. He’s got a Rudy Giuliani problem. Where the hell do you win?”

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Any evaluation of Chris Christie’s presidential fitness must also grant that some of his actions have been inexcusable. He grew naively intimate with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy. His attack on House Republicans for trying to eliminate waste in the disaster relief bill was petulant. His speech at the 2012 Republican convention was self-serving. He can be impulsive and vindictive, the political equivalent of a neutron bomb—you lob him into a capital city and then run for your life in the opposite direction.

But what can’t be ignored, and what’s illustrated so well by his strip-mining of Sweeney’s budget, is that Christie’s explosions have redounded to the benefit of conservatives, blowing apart New Jersey’s Democrat establishment and creating a new political paradigm in one of the nation’s bluest states. Christie may be a neutron bomb, but he’s our neutron bomb, and beneath all the wires and fuses is a solid core of conservative principles that deserves national recognition.

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Senator Rand Paul took a swipe at Governor Chris Christie in an interview today, continuing the back-and-forth that Christie started last month by criticizing libertarians.

Asked if he agreed with Ron Paul’s statement that Christie “offers nothing,” Paul told Fox News Sunday, “There’s room for people who believe in bigger government in our party.”

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