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Chris Christie Already Needs a Turnaround to Win

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie needs a major comeback to win the Republican nomination.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie needs a major turnaround to win the Republican nomination.

At first glance, it seems odd to suggest someone needs to come back in a race that has barely started. But in reality, Christie is a very familiar figure in the GOP who many influential Republicans have already written off for the 2016 nomination, even though many of these same Republicans were begging him to run four years ago.

Christie considered a last-minute presidential run in 2012, urged by party donors who felt the party didn't have any strong candidates. But Christie demurred, opting instead to endorse Mitt Romney.

At first, Christie's decision not to run for president seemed vindicated. Romney lost badly in 2012, suggesting no Republican could have defeated President Obama. Meanwhile, a year after the presidential election, Christie was resoundingly reelected in New Jersey in November 2013.

Christie not only won in a blue state, but made deep inroads among minority voters who typically shun Republicans. According to exit polls, 21 percent of blacks in New Jersey and about half of Latinos supported Christie in his re-election bid.

That victory made Christie look like the kind of Republican who could win a general election in 2016. Republicans were touting him as the candidate of the party's future, and it appeared he would enter the 2016 race as the favorite of GOP moderates and the party's establishment.

Then came the scandal in which several of Christie’s aides were implicated for the improper closure of traffic lanes in Fort Lee, New Jersey, allegedly in an attempt at punishing the town's mayor for not endorsing Christie. There is no evidence Christie was directly involved in the lane closing, but the controversy dominated headlines for weeks in 2014.

And the lane closure flap has inspired Republicans to look more closely at Christie’s record in New Jersey and find other things they don't like. The state’s credit rating has been repeatedly downgraded during his tenure. He was among the GOP governors who expanded Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act, a law Republicans hate. He has not achieved the kind of major conservative reforms of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who severely weakened public sector unions in his state.

And Christie is known for occasionally scolding everyday citizens who ask him questions at public meetings, moments that make look more like a schoolyard bully than a president.

So as Christie has moved towards a presidential run, many of his longtime supporters, including major fundraisers in New York, have opted to support other candidates. The most telling defection was Joe Kyrillos, a state senator in New jersey who was chair of Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign, endorsing former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Many party officials say Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, not Christie, are the top alternatives to Bush.

And other former or current governors, like Ohio's John Kasich and Texas' Rick Perry are in the race as well, giving Republicans a number of choices besides Christie if they want a candidate with executive experience.

How can Christie win? The best recent model for Christie is John McCain during his 2008 primary campaign. McCain had been the race’s early front-runner but struggled in the first half of 2007, falling behind in polls, draining most of his campaign funds and accepting the resignations of both his campaign manager and chief strategist amid internal infighting.

The Vietnam veteran soldiered on, running a low-cost campaign with an emphasis on winning the New Hampshire primary and hoping some of his rivals floundered. They did, and Republicans reluctantly came back to McCain after he won in the Granite State.

Christie, a Republican moderate who rarely speaks of his personal faith in public, is unlikely to win Iowa, whose caucuses are dominated by evangelical conservatives. But his views are not out of line with New Hampshire, whose primary is dominated by moderate and "somewhat conservative" voters. If Bush falters, Christie along with Walker, Kasich and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are the most logical choices for Republican voters who are more moderate.

This path is obviously very complicated. Christie needs campaign mistakes from several of his rivals, particularly Bush and Rubio, to leave him as the default candidate for moderate Republicans. And it requires Christie to assure Republicans throughout the campaign that he is not too hot-tempered. Christie yelling at a voter at a town hall during the general election could create the kind of viral moment that would make it much easier for Hillary Clinton to win.

Christie also can’t be directly implicated in the lane closure controversy, which remains under investigation.

This scenario, with his rivals collapsing and Christie becoming a consensus candidate, is very unlikely.