The lightest of early jabs thrown by one formidable 2016 contender at another. Unlike pretty much everyone else in the prospective field, Walker is on good terms with Christie.

Walker’s supporters say … his more conservative stances on several issues would help him in GOP primaries. And Walker’s calm Midwestern demeanor, they say, will play better in Iowa, South Carolina and other places than would Christie’s penchant for bombast and confrontation…

Walker didn’t quarrel with the premise. “Chris and I are good friends,” he said, and both of them stay true to their principles.

“The demeanor you have does have an impact,” Walker said. In New Jersey, he said, “the way that Chris has reacted to things actually fits.”

“I just have a Midwestern filter, that’s the difference,” Walker said. “I’m willing to speak out, but I’m not going to call you an idiot. I’m just going to say ‘That’s a ridiculous question,’ and move on.”

Interesting, not because it presages some nasty Walker/Christie spat — Walker actually rode to his defense a few days ago after Rand Paul attacked him again for being too moderate — but because these two probably are, at least at the beginning of the primary campaign, going to be champions for different niches of the GOP electorate. I keep imagining the 2016 field as splitting between a centrist, a tea partier, and some hybrid candidate who can pull dissatisfied voters from both groups. If Jeb Bush doesn’t run (and Christie’s doing what he can to make sure that he doesn’t), he’ll be the centrist guy. Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, in all likelihood, will be the tea-party guy. Walker’s well positioned to be the hybrid. (So was Rubio before he torched his conservative credibility for amnesty.) A few days ago Phil Klein dubbed him Christie’s worst nightmare potentially because he, maybe uniquely among the field, can counter Christie’s big electability argument. Not only would Walker, like Christie, have won reelection in a reliably blue state, he would have done it despite ferocious left-wing attempts to oust him for his collective bargaining reforms a few years ago. He might not pile up Christie’s numbers with blacks and Latinos but he can point to the recall as proof that he knows how to win even when Democrats are throwing everything they’ve got at him.

Just one question: What is it, exactly, that makes Christie a RINO and Walker a conservative, or at least conservative enough to qualify for the “hybrid” role in the next primary? Does it have to do with policy really or is it more of an attitudinal thing that people attempt to justify by appealing to policy? Both of them are famous for battling public employee unions; both of them are pro-life and support a path to citizenship for illegals (Walker’s take on border security might actually be more liberal than any of his rivals, Christie included); and both like to contrast their focus on “results” with the gridlock and brinksmanship in D.C. This bit from Walker’s op-ed a few days ago could have come straight out of one of Christie’s speeches:

In Washington the fight is over “fiscal cliffs,” “debt limits,” “sequesters” and “shutdowns.” In the states, Republicans focus on improving education, caring for the poor, reforming government, lowering taxes, fixing entitlements, reducing dependency, improving health care, and creating jobs and opportunity for the unemployed.

Republicans need to do more than simply say no to Mr. Obama and his party’s big-government agenda. They can offer Americans positive solutions for the nation’s challenges—to reduce dependency, and create hope, opportunity, and upward mobility for all citizens.

There are differences too, of course — Walker will spend lots of time in 2016 contrasting his gun policies with Christie’s, and the two of them will inevitably end up getting down in the weeds over who the bigger sellout on ObamaCare is. Christie expanded Medicaid in New Jersey temporarily; Walker rejected the Medicaid expansion and lowered the income level for eligibility in the program, with the newly ineligible poor expected to enroll in O-Care and start receiving federal subsidies instead. Which policy is “less conservative”? We’ll find out! My point, though, is that perceptions that Christie’s a centrist sellout while Walker’s a principled conservative seem to turn less on what they’ve done as governors than the manner in which they’ve done it. Walker’s the guy who walked through political fire, at personal risk to himself, to make those collective bargaining reforms stick. Christie’s the guy who gave Obama his big bipartisan Sandy photo op on the eve of the election and who seems to end up squabbling with tea-party favorites like Rand Paul every other week. Klein, in the post linked above, distinguished them by saying that righties seem to view Walker as “one of us” whereas they have the opposite sense of Christie, that he’s another northeastern Republican who views the conservative base with thinly veiled contempt. Isn’t that the big difference between them (apart from, as Walker says, Christie’s willingness to call his critics “idiots”)?

I don’t mean to overstate the importance of style in saying that, though. One crucial thing that righties learned about Walker during and after the Thunderdome in Madison over collective bargaining is that the guy simply will not bend on a policy he believes in, no matter how much acid the left spits at him and how far into the tank the media goes for Democrats in attacking him. He’s unflappable. That’s hugely significant when you’re thinking of throwing your vote to a guy who isn’t the most orthodox conservative in the field. The big worry about Christie is that he’ll be wooed by media adulation of his charisma and his own rhetoric about the glories of compromise into governing even further from the center than people think. That’s less of a worry with Walker, the guy who became a right-wing rock star precisely because he wouldn’t compromise.

Here’s Christie in his new role as RGA chair running through the familiar condemnation of D.C. brinksmanship yesterday.