The New Jersey governor’s race, where Republican incumbent Gov. Christopher Christie maintained leads of about 2-1 for months, ends with the governor leading State Sen. Barbara Buono, his Democratic challenger, 61 – 33 percent among likely voters, according to a Quinnipiac University poll completed last night and released today…

Christie leads 66 – 29 percent among men and 57 – 36 percent among women, 94 – 5 percent among Republicans and 64 – 29 percent among independent voters. He even gets 30 percent of Democrats, to Buono’s 64 percent.

“That weekend bus ride around the Garden State must have felt like a victory tour for Gov. Christopher Christie” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute…

“With his appeal to independent voters, and even Democrats, Christie-for-President 2016 begins a few minutes after 8 o’clock tomorrow night.”

“People expect government to work for them … and you can compromise without compromising your principals,” he told POLITICO. “It’s not a dirty word. That’s what we’ve proven over four years in New Jersey… I know what’s gone on here in New Jersey and what’s happening here is not the result of the last six months. It’s the result of the last four years.”…

One voter, who drove an antique car with her father and parked it outside the pastry shop, carried around a sign for the assembled media: “Here I am with the future president of the United States.”

“If Chris Christie has a big win on Tuesday, he’s going to march off to Iowa and tell conservative Republican caucus-goers: “Here’s how I did it. I demonized the unions; put the teachers in their place; stuck to my pro-life, anti-gay marriage, no-new-gun-laws agenda; and I never backed away from the principles of supply-side economics. When Obama came to town – well, that was just me doing my job,’” said Buono strategist John Del Cecato. “‘But I’m a rock-ribbed conservative, and I never moderated myself for a minute. And you know what? I won.’”

He added, “That should give Democrats heartburn for a few reasons. First, he’s telling other Republican governors that right-wing policies can carry the day in a blue state if you dress them up with colorful language and a devil-may-care attitude. Second, it gives him a good shot at the GOP presidential nomination. Democrats who comfort themselves by thinking Christie somehow can’t make it through a primary are fooling themselves.”

“He’s the guy whose big message to the party is ‘I can win’,” a senior establishment Republican in Washington told The Daily Telegraph, contrasting Mr Christie’s can-do persona to the ultra-ideological Tea Party faction that came to the fore last month by forcing a US government shutdown. “As much as the ideologues in the party have a lot of sway, by the time the early part of 2016 rolls around everyone’s just so sick of the Obama administration that they’re like, ‘thank God someone’s just trying to win,’” the source added. “This is a Republican that Democrats can vote for.” The comparisons with Mr Clinton do not stop with that unique ability to make each individual feel like they are the only person in the room.

Mr Christie’s supporters see him remaking the Republican party just as Mr Clinton — another small-state governor — hauled Democrats back to the centre-ground in the late Eighties after two decades of ideological irrelevance. “The hope is that Mr Christie reunites the old Reagan Democrats, working class folks who normally vote Democrat who would vote for Chris Christie,” said Patrick Murray, of Monmouth University, the top New Jersey pollster. “Certainly the polling indicates that he’s the strongest contender against Hillary Clinton nationwide.”…

Raising a hand, Mr Christie hushes the packed diner and introduces [Susana] Martinez, who is another former federal prosecutor-turned state governor. “We speak the same language, we don’t put up with any garbage from anybody,” says Mr Christie in his unmistakable tough-guy New Jersey tones. “We know what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong and together we’re gonna make our states a better place, and by example, hopefully to make our country a better place.”

Demographically, New Jersey is basically similar to Massachusetts, but with slightly higher incomes and somewhat more racial diversity. Like New Jersey, Massachusetts has townies. But when Massachusetts politicians run for national office, reporters don’t pull out Good Will Hunting and fret that the local pols are “too Massachusetts” to sell nationally.

The truth is that Christie’s style is less specific to New Jersey than most people (including Christie) would have you think. His approach isn’t typical for New Jersey politicians; nobody would describe Christie Todd Whitman or Jon Corzine or Cory Booker as a “Jersey loudmouth.” And brash, confrontational, off-script, sometimes angry politicians can thrive outside New Jersey: just look at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel or London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Christie’s confrontational personality can appeal to all sorts of electorates so long as he trains his anger in the right places…

This weekend, when I watched Christie give two stump speeches, the angriest part of his remarks each time came when talking about the complete breakdown of the political process in Washington, again matching the sentiment of the electorate. So long as Christie keeps training his anger in the right place, Christie will be O.K.

“If he pulls even with Buono [among Latinos] this really bodes well for his national election potential,” said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University. “The Republican Party is looking at this increasingly important demographic group and if you have a moderate candidate with a broad appeal with this constituency it makes sense to give that person a second look as a nominee.”…

The Christie camp appears to be doubling-down on the notion that the GOP will nominate someone seen as the most electable candidate in 2016, rather than one that can win over the base. But Christie’s strong showing in New Jersey among Hispanics may not be enough to convince Republican bigwigs that he can do the same thing nationwide. For one thing, the Hispanic population in New Jersey, while large and diverse, is not representative of the population in the rest of the country. Only Florida boosts more Cuban-American voters, a constituency that has traditionally voted Republican (One of New Jersey’s U.S. Senators, Robert Menendez, is Cuban-American.) In 2009, Christie eked out a slight win against incumbent governor Jon Corzine and still garnered 32 percent of the Hispanic vote. For him to show broad appeal to Latinos nationwide he may have to do better than the 40 percent he is currently polling among Latinos against weak Democratic opposition…

“There is a demographic situation in this country that will make it very challenging for Republicans to win national elections unless they are able to connect with Hispanic voters, and what we are seeing is that is possible for a Republican leader to do that.”

Socially conservative positions on hot-button issues don’t seem to be a deal-breaker even for the much more liberal voters of New Jersey. Christie has vetoed legislation to grant state recognition to same-sex marriage — a judge later ordered it, though Christie briefly appealed — and vetoed bills to fund Planned Parenthood five times.

He does not, however, seem obsessed by social issues: Democrats haven’t gotten much mileage out of ads saying that his priorities are different from those of voters, as they have against Cuccinelli. Christie has also avoided taking unpopular socially conservative stands on issues that aren’t live debates, and taken the occasional opportunity to soften his profile.

If the polls hold up, Cuccinelli’s defeat may demoralize social conservatives — especially if the news media spin the defeat as a sign that their concerns are a millstone around the neck of Republican politicians. Christie’s likely re-election shows that such an interpretation is wrong. Being a social conservative is not by itself a political death sentence even in deep-blue territory.

If Christie wants to run for president, he may find that pointing this out is a low-cost way of appealing to a national constituency that matters a lot in his party.

“There’s a lot of Gov. Christie that I really like, but there are parts where he’s given me reason for pause,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a possible 2014 Senate candidate who heads Iowa’s socially conservative Family Leader. Referencing the same-sex marriage issue, he asked: “The fact is, why don’t you challenge the court?”

“The secret sauce is that he’s like everybody’s next-door neighbor,” Katon Dawson, a fixture of South Carolina Republican politics, said of Christie. But he warned that the governor’s pugnacious New Jersey style could wear thin on voters outside of the Northeast. “Will they like him in South Carolina? The jury’s out on that.”

Myriad factors could shape the manner in which Christie might mount a bid for the GOP nomination. Christie might find ample space to run as an electable centrist if a variety of hard-charging conservatives or Tea Party types enter the race. And he could just as easily skip or participate lightly in Iowa and South Carolina – both early nominating contests dominated by conservatives.

Such a strategy could enable Christie to run a campaign more consistent with the persona he’s cultivated during his first term as governor.

In general elections, votes are driven mainly by party, and secondarily by voters’ retrospective evaluation of the incumbent party. Everything else: candidate, campaign, specific issues outside of the party context … it’s sloppy to say that they “don’t matter,” but the truth is that they matter only on the margins…

On the other hand, in the battle for nomination, candidates (including their personalities) are very important. Both party actors (everyone from politicians to activists) and the larger primary electorate are going to be looking for ways to differentiate among candidates, and it’s certainly plausible that personality will play a major role in distinguishing between seemingly identical contenders.

It’s likely that any consensus among party actors will be passed along to voters, and in most cases accepted by them. Very simply, if Republican activists, donors, campaign and governing professionals, politicians, and formal party officials and staff decide that they like Chris Christie, then the odds are good that Fox News and other party-aligned press outlets are going to pass along to voters an “authenticity” version of the candidate; if there’s a consensus against him, then the party-aligned press will interpret his behavior harshly. It’s possible that rank-and-file voters will come to their own conclusions and reject the view of party actors, but it’s not very likely.

Until the polls close, even though Democrats hold that legislative race lead, Christie is telling crowds that they really should consider voting for more Republicans, if only to send a message. “If you reward bad behavior, just like what happens with kids, you’ll get more bad behavior,” he says in Somers Point. “If you reward good behavior, you’ll get more good behavior. You know, Tuesday night, America’s watching. America’s watching and they want a new signal of hope for the country’s future, after all the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. They’re gonna look to New Jersey for that hope, and we’re gonna provide it to them on Tuesday.”

I look around the room and see more than one grown man daubing away tears at what Christie’s just said about their state. Voter Jim Logan pulls me aside.

“Only Ronald Reagan could have given a speech like that,” he says. “That last sentence? Yeah, he’s running.”