New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is “by far, far and away” the Republican frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race, veteran Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer says…

“Now, he’s going to have trouble in Iowa. He’ll have trouble in other places. But I don’t think the Republicans want to commit hari kari . . . I don’t necessarily think he’s going to win, but they’ve lost twice.”…

“There are areas where conservatives will disagree with him but if you find a guy who wins by 22 points in a deeply, deeply Democratic state, you’ve got to take a look at him because whatever you think of moderation amongst some conservatives, it sure beats having a Democrat, a [Barack] Obama, or a [Bill] Clinton in the White House.”

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“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 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

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.”

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Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the shouting down of Nelson Rockefeller at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. For many conservatives, the Goldwater moment–itself a reaction to the perceived moderation of the Eisenhower years–is a kind of nativity narrative for what’s best about the modern GOP. The story goes like this: conservatives disenchanted with Ike nominated Goldwater, whose defeat made Reagan’s ultimate victory possible.

The problem with that tale, though, is that it fails to credit the great historical fact of the matter: Eisenhower and Reagan had more in common with Christie than with Ted Cruz. Ike and Reagan knew how to win and how to govern, and they bent history to their will by appealing not just to a narrow slice of America but to the nation–even the world–as a whole…

No one is confusing Christie’s political gifts with Reagan’s, and it is hard to see how he could win a Gipper-like landslide in 2016. But he did something this week that no GOP politician has done convincingly since the Reagan era: he dominated the middle of a Democratic electorate.

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Like Clinton, who so famously felt people’s pain, Christie connects. He has a reputation for confrontation — rightly — but Christie’s emotional range is much broader. His response to Hurricane Sandy was, in part, a great act of empathy. Near the end of his victory speech, he spoke about hugging New Jerseyeans.

What Clinton had that Christie evidently lacks is a well-thought-out approach to his party’s predicament. Clinton had a new governing philosophy, embodied in the Democratic Leadership Council and its associated think tank, and expressed in a raft of new policy proposals. Chris Christie has an affect and a style of governance, plus a resounding victory over Barbara Buono.

If Christie’s message to the GOP is merely that it should look to what he did in the Garden State and be as wonderfully unifying as he is, it deserves to flop. It could come off as boastful and hectoring, and about as original as the average political discussion on NPR. Coupled with his various departures from conservative orthodoxy, it could be toxic.

For Christie to capitalize on the opportunity he has created for himself, he will need a conservative reform agenda.

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The governor’s record also includes some mistakes that conservatives will and should hold against him, and we are not talking about whom he has hugged. He accepted Obamacare’s invitation for states to expand Medicaid. He has expressed support for New Jersey’s strict gun-control laws and even (albeit half-heartedly) proposed tightening them. And Christie’s judicial appointments have fallen troublingly short of his rhetoric. He can reasonably defend his decision to abandon his appeal of a New Jersey court’s order to recognize same-sex marriage on the ground that the state’s courts were likely to turn a deaf ear; but that defense is also an indictment.

Then there is the question—and it is a question—of where he stands on national issues with which he has little experience. His dust-up with Senator Rand Paul this summer suggests that he believes, as we do, that we cannot shirk the responsibilities that come with being the most powerful country in the world. They also suggest, however, that he has a tin ear on these issues: The concerns many conservatives raise about the overextension of the national-security state may be unfounded in some instances, but someone who seeks to lead the conservative coalition should not peremptorily dismiss them. Unifying that coalition will require deftness as well as pugnacity.

Also unknown is what Christie thinks of the Republican party’s condition and how to improve it. Is he among those who think that the crucial imperative for the party is to soften its image on social issues? Or that what it needs most is an attractive standard-bearer—a tempting line of thought for any ambitious politician? In our view, the crying need is for an authentically conservative agenda that advances the interests of most Americans, and for leaders who can explain how it does so. Senator Mike Lee of Utah has cleared a path here: Will Governor Christie take it?

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1. The I/Me syndrome. Christie shares this in common with successful presidents — the last two Democratic presidents, in particular. He believes in himself, which is good, and confidence is a sexy trait for voters, but he is self-assured, or self-possessed, to a degree that is already noticeable. While it’s true that presidential campaigns are cults of personality, we tend to notice when someone makes it all about himself. Christie’s 2012 convention speech, his keynote, was supposed to be a testament to another guy, Mitt Romney. Instead, it was self-referential. Self-reverential, even. Christie disagrees. That he disagrees is evidence itself of a willful blindness to the way his self-possession comes across. Christie will learn, over time, that what he did matters as much (if not more) than how great he is.

2. Blindness. Overconfidence, and an overage of self-piety, will lead Christie to insist that certain potential problems are simply not. (There’s no way that, I, Chris Christie, would allow myself to make that mistake.) To admit otherwise is to introduce cognitive dissonance. But as the Romney vet of Christie showed, there are potentially significant questions about his judgment that will dog Christie until he answers them without being defensive. This blindness will serve Christie poorly when it comes to choosing advisers, too. (Rudy Giuliani had his Bernie Kerik. And what was galling about it was how Giuliani simply could not contemplate the idea that Kerik was not up to snuff. Giuliani, after all, had picked him to be part of his inner circle.)

3. Temper. As a human being, Christie is entitled to get angry. As a presidential candidate, he can use his anger productively. A few flashes of uncontrolled annoyance are fine, too, making Christie seem like he responds to events just like you or I would. In a Republican primary, there’s also something to be said for lashing out at the media. Newt Gingrich became the frontrunner by tweaking debate moderators. But Christie’s flashes of temper tend to be volcanic and even scary.

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But let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that Christie makes it to the general election. Imagine a time after the press has turned on him (as they turned on John McCain and other Republican media darlings). What happens when MSNBC plays video of him yelling at someone for the millionth time, and after George Will or Charles Krauthammer writes the column about the danger of an angry man having his finger on the button? What happens when he tells a national political reporter that “it’s none of your business”?…

It’s understandable why his advisors might not want him to tinker with his natural demeanor. And you can imagine the “let Christie be Christie” headlines that would surely emerge were he to tone down his style and fall flat. But conservatives who have seen the media turn on Republicans once they become a viable threat to a Democrat like Hillary Clinton worry his behavior will gradually go from being portrayed as “colorful” or charming to erratic and dangerous.

“If Christie yells at a teacher at a town hall in Iowa, that teacher is going to get a lot of time on television afterward — in a way that these people [who] get berated in New Jersey don’t,” says my liberal sparring partner Bill Scher.

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All that Lowry love led a New Jersey political source to e-mail his disagreement. “He’s proven me wrong before,” he said of Christie, “but I think Rudy Giuliani is the more apt comparison.” And then he succinctly made a convincing case.

Anyway, you remember President Giuliani, right?
Italian American — check
Former prosecutor — check
From the Northeast/NY Metro area — check
Bully — check
Thin-skinned — check
Two-term chief executive — check
Built his rep on the backs of a disaster — check
Ridiculous hype about his prez aspirations — check
Questions about his conservative bona fides — check
Chief strategist named Mike Duhaime – check

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“I am pro-choice, and that is almost a disqualification,” [Giuliani] said. “Christie is pro-life. I don’t think Democrats understand the Republican primary process. The reality is that being pro-life immediately gets him off the disqualification list. That is entry test No. 1. If you don’t pass that, you don’t get to any of the others. For people who are pro-life, it is a life and death issue, that’s the way they see it.”…

“His main appeal is that he seems like a common-sense tough guy. He seems like a Harry Truman—rough around the edges, but has common sense. Has an ideology, but is willing to make deal. I think there is a tremendous appeal to that. He is legitimately the frontrunner.

Unless, he quickly added, “Jeb Bush gets in. If Jeb Bush gets into it, he is like Hillary on the Democratic side.”

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Feehery is more succinct: “It’s going to be a governor—or Jeb.”

Then there’s Jeb. The last name is obviously a handicap, though perhaps not as much now as last cycle. (The present Republican crew does make one nostalgic for even not-so-popular GOP administrations gone by.) His support of comprehensive immigration reform does not sit well with the base, nor does his embrace of Common Core education reform. (Or, as Corallo calls it, “his buddying up with the left on education reform.”) There is also some below-the-radar rumbling that the governor’s wife, Columba, is not ready for prime time. That said, Jeb is widely seen as a grown-up in a party with few of those. He was a very successful, very popular conservative governor in Florida, a key swing state with a large Hispanic population. And even that whole family dynasty thing has its upside. Sure, there’s plenty of Bush fatigue, but the name also helps open up wallets. “There’s always going to be magic with Jeb in this party,” says Corallo. “The money will flow.” Jeb is more conservative than his brother, which would help with the base, but he doesn’t scare business types. And even folks disappointed by his big brother’s presidency could take heart in the fact that, as Feehery notes, “Jeb has always been seen as the smart one.”

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Before the New Jersey governor arrives, I find myself in the back of the room talking to two of his donors, one a personal friend of the governor who is very optimistic that Christie has a lock on the 2016 nomination.

“Nationally, you’ve got the Ted Cruzes of the world, Rand Paul, you’ve got all of these guys that are going to cannibalize each other for that piece of the party,” he tells me. “And there is no other figure out there, with the exception of Jeb Bush, who has this niche in the Republican party.”

The other donor, a former Wall Street trader, doesn’t see it that way. In his view, a Tea Party frenzy has taken over the party and only a conservative purist will win the nomination. “I think a Christie-Bloomberg third-party ticket is more likely than Christie capturing the [Republican] nomination.”

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