The Boss

He’s big, he’s brash, and he’s not afraid of picking fights with Republicans or making allies of Democrats. Can Chris Christie bring his wayward party back to the center?

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Photograph by Edward Keating / Contact for TIME

Christie suits up for his annual State of the State address in Trenton, N.J., on Jan. 8.

Christie’s post-Sandy surge has his rivals resorting to the kind of comments they once criticized Christie for. The Democratic senate president, Stephen Sweeney, mused about the fact that millions in disaster-relief aid would amount to a job-­creation package. “I guess he prayed a lot and got lucky because a storm came,” groused Sweeney, who subsequently apologized.

Even as he keeps local Democrats on the run, it’s not clear whether Christie’s success will help him with the national GOP. Some Republicans believe Christie’s chummy tour with Obama gave the President a decisive boost in the election’s homestretch and suggest he was influenced by the fact that the President was about to crush Romney in his state. (Obama won New Jersey by 18 points.) A former aide says Romney, a former governor himself, understood that Christie was simply doing his job. But not everyone has forgiven him, including Rush Limbaugh, who suggested that Christie had a romantic crush on the President and had played “the role of Greek column” for Obama’s re-election. (“If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics,” Christie barked at the time, “then you don’t know me.”)

Christie’s advisers say those memories have already faded—or will soon. “I think that was very short-lived,” says his friend and strategist Bill Palatucci. After eight years out of the White House, Republicans will be desperate to find a winner and may appreciate that bashing Washington is almost always smart politics—and bashing his own party when it is deeply unpopular might be the shrewdest politics of all. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” slogan in 2000 was in part a way of distancing himself from the Newt ­Gingrich–Tom DeLay Congress. If Christie is easily re-elected in a state that hasn’t gone red since 1988, Republicans will have to wonder if he might be the man to restore their unloved brand.

(MORE: Christie Passes on 2012: ‘Now Is Not My Time’)

Defying Gravity
Even so, the path to the White House is littered with the wrecks of moderate Republicans. Jon Huntsman learned that in 2012. Rudy Giuliani tried to bring his Northeastern moderation and post-9/11 heroism to presidential politics but utterly failed to win over the conservative gatekeepers of the Republican primaries. But Christie is no social liberal: he opposes abortion, vetoed a gay-marriage bill and abandoned his onetime sympathy for global-warming measures. And whereas an image of moderation might have been disqualifying in 2012, by 2016, power-starved Republicans may be in the market for someone more flexible.

Before turning his sights to 2016, however, Christie needs to maintain his standing in New Jersey through 2013. State Democrats insist the Christie steamroller can be stopped. As the emotional response to Sandy fades, they argue, the state’s Democratic-leaning voters will gradually refocus on the budget and economic issues, where Christie is to the right of the electorate. “There are so many issues on which he has not delivered,” says assemblyman and state Democratic Party chairman John Wisniewski, who explains that Christie has failed to lower property taxes and has relied on reckless borrowing to balance the budget. New Jersey is also staggering under a 9.8% unemployment rate—two points above the national average. “It’s not like there’s a New Jersey miracle,” says one Democratic strategist. “The fact that he’s defying gravity doesn’t mean that gravity won’t reassert itself.”

But as of now, that pudding is waiting for proof. None of the state’s leading Democrats have yet agreed to challenge Christie. And it’s a measure of his strength that one Democrat concedes that the party’s best hope might be for Christie to self-destruct with one of his less endearing tough-guy tirades late in the race.

(MORE: Christie Wants More)

It also remains to be seen whether Christie can follow through on his talk of bipartisanship. He remains dedicated to conservative economic principles like tax cutting and reduced regulations in a state where both enjoy limited support. “This is a governor who has repeatedly pushed policies that are staunchly conservative,” says Brigid Harrison, a political-science professor at Montclair State University. “I think he’s found a formula that works, but the reality doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the rhetoric.”

Like the governor, Christie’s advisers are wary of talking too much about the next presidential election. “The governor has been very clear to everyone around him that the focus is on 2013 and nothing but 2013,” says Palatucci. “People are trying to figure out what he’s doing? He’s just doing his job.”

But it’s clear that Christie thinks about how he might take his local success to the national stage. The day after his State of the State address, he played his moment cannily, hitting all three network morning shows.

And when a local paper asked him the same question he was asked in late 2010—whether he was ready to be ­President—Christie struck a different tone. ­“Yeah, you’re damn right I’d be more ready,” he said.

MORE: Chris Christie on a No-Red-Meat Diet

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