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To Run For President, Chris Christie Will Have to Get Much Less Moderate, or Much More Unpleasant.

Neither option is good for him

Kena Betancur/Getty Images News/Getty Images

With a big win over his Democratic opponent on Tuesday, Chris Christie is sure to enjoy more accolades, and speculation about his plans for higher office. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza calls Christie “clearly” number 1 in his (Cillizza’s) ranking of likely GOP nominees. (Rand Paul comes in at #2: sorry, but he will not win the GOP primary.) “Chris Christie momentarily stands alone,” The New Republic’s Nate Cohn wrote recently in a smart piece on the New Jersey governor. Democrats (and their fundraisers) seem nervous too: The New York Times reported in its lead story on Tuesday that stifling Christie’s second-term gubernatorial agenda is a top priority for the Party.

If Christie can somehow be considered the front-runner for the 2016 nomination, however, it is only because of a dearth of strong Republican candidates. His political shortcomings are much more acute than people realize. These shortcomings are generally considered to be an abrasive personal style (Cohn: "It’s unclear how Christie’s Jersey Shore demeanor and temperament will play in Iowa or New Hampshire") and skepticism from the GOP base (Cillizza: “The only question for Christie is whether the power center of the party has moved so far toward the tea party that — with his focus on pragmatism over principle and winning over all else — he simply cannot be its choice”). But because Christie needs his abrasiveness to help him with the base, these two issues are likely to become interconnected in any Republican primary, and will probably doom his chances to ascend to the White House even if he becomes the nominee.

Concurrent with all the Christie mania, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s new book, Double Down, has fresh reporting on the Romney campaign’s dismay over unanswered question about Christie’s professional history and medical records. Nothing they report seems necessarily disqualifying for 2016, even if it was for the #2 spot in 2012. Concerns about his health (and worries about his weight more generally) can only be speculated upon. But other revelations in the book are likely to prove more decisive:

Four nights later, on July 19, Myers’ team put the finishing touches on the [Christie] vetting dossier. Included was a DVD with some of Christie’s most outlandish or unnerving YouTube hits: his castigating a pro-gay-marriage New Jersey assemblyman as “numb nuts,” his angrily berating a constituent while chasing him down the Seaside Heights boardwalk, brandishing an ice cream cone.

This is what Cohn meant when he wondered about that charming Christie demeanor. Still, according to Cohn, Christie has a real chance to rebrand the Republican Party. As he writes:

“There’s a historical precedent: Bill Clinton. He was ostensibly a “New Democrat,” even though he was pro-choice, supported higher taxes, a universal health care system, gun control, and expanded rights for gays in the military. Rather than abandon core elements of the Democratic agenda, Clinton softened the edges on unreformed welfare, crime, middle class taxes, and said abortion should be “rare,” even if it should remain legal. Today’s “New Republican” might not look very different from Chris Christie. He or she would preserve the core elements of the Republican agenda, but might retreat on a few symbolic but ultimately incidental issues—like immigration reform.

As Cohn acknowledges, however, this leaves the problem of the GOP primary:

His stance on gun control—dictated by a state with one of the lowest rates of gun ownership in the country—will be a real problem, especially since relative moderation and secularism already puts him at a serious disadvantage in the South and across the rural West and Midwest. 

The big problem for Christie is that these two ostensibly separate concerns—his temperament and his problems with the base—are likely to merge in unpleasant ways. If there is one thing about Christie that does appeal to the Tea Party crowd, it is his demeanor. (I am uncertain that even hardcore right-wingers will enjoy Christie’s personality after being exposed to it day after day for a year, but let’s leave that aside.) They love his disdain for liberals and unions, his “straight talk,” and his seemingly anti-establishment, regular-guy shtick. (Ironically, it’s this anti-establishment shtick that seems to have endeared Christie to the Republican establishment, from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to the Lords of Finance.)

When Christie is inevitably attacked by his competitors on some of the issues Cohn mentions, then expect him to go into full-bore angry guy mode. The GOP primary is thus going to set up a dynamic in which Christie will have to rely on his worst instincts. If you think Mitt Romney was forced into unpalatable general election positions during his primary campaign, just wait until Christie uses his anger to deflect attacks and provides a whole slew of new YouTube clips. The other option is to rebrand himself as a staunch rightwinger, which could do the trick in the primary, but will also hinder his efforts to be a different type of Republican.

Still, Paul and Ted Cruz are enormously flawed, and the rest of the field is far from settled. (My pick is Scott Walker, who has a lot of Christie's virtues but doesn't exhibit Christie's weaknesses.) Yet even if Team Romney's concerns about his health and undisclosed aspects of his past prove to be unfounded, Christie still has a giant task ahead of him. Before he rebrands his party, he will have to navigate its nominating contest.