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Is establishment backing a blessing or curse inside GOP?

In covering Republican presidential politics over the past decade, there's been a fairly safe bet -- pick the side the establishment is backing.

That was true with George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain (despite his ups and downs) in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012 (ditto).

And National Review's Robert Costa reports that key parts of the GOP establishment -- three years out until 2016, mind you -- are beginning to coalesce around New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The crescendo of Christie’s reemergence as the establishment’s frontrunner came last week in Boston, where, less than a year after the Romney-related recriminations, the members of the Republican National Committee embraced him, for the most part, during their summer meeting. He cast himself as a national leader capable of leading the party out of its political wilderness. He seemed eager to snuff the post-election friction, once and for all, with a charismatic and upbeat performance. But after McCain and Romney lost to Barack Obama -- with lingering gripes that both weren't conservative enough -- are Republican primary voters willing to take another chance with the establishment candidate?

Indeed, that's one of the chief questions the GOP will grapple over in the next couple of years, and the 2014 midterm results could provide an early answer.

"There is a wide swath of the party's base and grassroots that are inherently skeptical of anyone who garners strong establishment support," says GOP strategist Liz Mair.

She adds this is especially true "given the perception that the big money donors saw some of the worst political operations going last time around as solid investments."

On the other hand, Mair says that establishment backing in a presidential contest brings money and campaign infrastructure. "Garnering strong support from a party's establishment this far out can be a bit of a double-edged sword -- but a sword it still is."

But right now, nine months after its defeat in the 2012 elections, the establishment appears to have less a grasp on the party than it did at the beginning of the year.

Immigration reform has hit a road block in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, despite the establishment's support for it; House Speaker John Boehner has sometimes failed to get his conference to pass legislation, due in large part to rebellion by conservative members; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell now has a year-long primary challenger from the Tea Party.

The establishment has often triumphed in today's Republican Party. But will that continue, especially as we get closer and closer to 2016?