Marco Rubio: Let's not read too much into this Chris Christie victory, okay?

Obligatory, just because it’ll be fun to watch commenters try to decide whether to grumble about Christie here or about Rubio. Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the RINO-iest RINO of them all?

Rubio’s right about this, of course.

“I think we need to understand that some of these races don’t apply to future races. Every race is different–it has a different set of factors–but I congratulate (Christie) on his win,” he told CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash…

“Clearly (Christie) was able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of people within New Jersey. That’s important. We want to win everywhere and Governor Christie has certainly shown he has a way of winning in New Jersey, in states like New Jersey… so I congratulate him on that,” he said.

Rubio’s comments stood in stark contrast to the message Christie tried to convey in his victory speech Tuesday night. The governor argued his win should send a cautionary tale to Washington (and more subtly, to the GOP) that his way is the right way.

I half-joked on Twitter last night that I’d love to see Nate Silver model what the Jersey election results would have looked like if Sandy had never happened. Not only would Christie have lacked the huge reservoir of goodwill he’s had over the past year, his relative vulnerability might have drawn a stronger Democratic challenger. Buono was a sacrificial lamb; she practically admitted as much in her concession speech, saying that she’d taken one “for the team” in challenging Christie while getting zero support from national Democrats. If Sandy had never happened, maybe Cory Booker would have decided to challenge Christie for governor rather than run for Senate. What happens to Christie’s big showstopping numbers among minority voters in that case?

So reluctant was Christie to appear on a ballot with Booker, in fact, that he forced the special election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat to be held last month rather than wait a few weeks and add it to last night’s menu. Andy McCarthy with a refresher:

First, while he could have appointed a Republican to finish Lautenberg’s term, which would have given the GOP another vote in the Senate until 2015, Christie opted to hold a quick special election. With Booker chomping at the bit to run, this gave Democrats a high probability of recapturing the seat over a year earlier — and since Christie, of course, knew this, it was sure to burnish his “bipartisan” credentials for 2016.

Second, rather than holding the special Senate election on Election Day, Christie forced the Garden State to hold it separately, less than three weeks before Election Day. Transparently, this was done because Christie believed he needed not just a win (in an election Democrats were not really contesting) but a blow-out win to enhance his image as the Republican 2016 contender whose appeal transcends partisan boundaries. Christie obviously realized that if Booker’s senate race had been on the ballot the same day as his own gubernatorial reelection bid, many more Democrats would be drawn to the polls. A goodly number of them would have voted for Buono – not enough to beat Christie but enough to deny him the kind of landslide victory he was banking on. So New Jersey taxpayers are now on the hook for the extra $24 million it cost to hold the extra election that enabled Christie to avoid a bigger Democratic turn-out.

Christie wanted Booker off his radar and was willing to go the extra mile to make it happen. Which is not to say that he owes all his success to Sandy: Check out his approval ratings before last October and you’ll see that he was consistently a few points above 50 percent in most polls, no mean feat for a Republican in a Democratic state. He has legit centrist/indie appeal. I just doubt that it’s as remotely world-beating as his fans (“he’s the Republican Bill Clinton!”) want people to believe. Take away the fluke propulsion he got locally from Sandy and put him up against a strong Democrat and how does he fare?

Ironically, I think his strongest credential against someone as bland as Hillary Clinton is the double-edged sword of his personality, which grates on me more each time I’m exposed to it but which has the virtue of potentially making Christie as vivid in voters’ minds as Hillary, a bona fide Democratic icon. With the possible exception of Ted Cruz, Christie may be the only guy in the field who could alter the public’s perception that 2016 is really all about her and whether she’ll become the first woman president. It’s easy to imagine his Republican rivals getting bigfooted. Not him. The fact remains, though, that for all the babbling about a prospective Christie juggernaut in the primaries, his candidacy is potentially one-and-done: He’ll be an underdog in Iowa because of the strong evangelical and Paulbot factions there, which means everything will be riding on winning the moderate, maverick-y GOP electorate in New Hampshire. Can he beat Paul and maybe Scott Walker? If not, South Carolina’s almost certainly a lost cause, which means he’ll need New York/New Jersey transplants in Florida to deliver that state to him in a last-ditch try to keep his candidacy alive. Christie’s a much stronger candidate than Giuliani was — more colorful, more socially conservative, certainly better funded — but sometimes I think he and Rudy’s primary fates might be more similar than people think.

Ah well. As for poor Rubio, lefty Benjy Sarlin wonders where his niche is now with Christie emerging as centrist messiah and Paul and Cruz emerging on the right. (And yes, the Paul/Cruz rivalry is already taking form.) In theory, Rubio could be the “somewhat conservative” hero — not too hot, not too cold, but jusssst right for people who think Christie’s too RINO-y and Cruz too fringe-y. Where does Rubio win, though? Maybe we’re destined for a death match between him and Christie in Florida to see who’ll be crowned establishment champion and do battle with Cruz or Paul for the nomination.

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