If there's a to-do list for a politician with 2016 presidential aspirations, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can tick off quite a few items. Re-election landslide: check. Victory lap of political chat shows: check. Late-night TV and prime-time sitcom appearances: check. Opinion polls showing he's in the lead for the GOP nomination: check.
Too bad the primaries don't start now. Christie has two years until he can try to convert his popularity among Republicans into primary delegates. Now what does he do?
Christie hasn't said he will run for president, but most of his constituents — along with plenty of political pundits — expect that he will. Fifty-nine percent of New Jerseyites say he will seek the presidency in 2016, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll taken this month.
To preserve that prospect, Christie has to walk a fine line: He must maintain the political momentum he has been steadily gaining since he came to national attention during Superstorm Sandy last year without risking overexposure or becoming viewed as the "inevitable" GOP nominee.
After his 60% romp over Democrat Barbara Buono in this month's election, Christie appeared on four Sunday talk shows, dropped by Jimmy Fallon and did a cameo on The Michael J. Fox Show. He held a full-scale news conference the day after Election Day. At the gathering of corporate CEOs on Monday, he called Obamacare "the most extraordinary overreach of government power in the history of our country.'' Thursday, he will become chairman of the Republican Governors' Association at its annual meeting in Arizona. (His office declined to comment for this article.)
Christie won't stay as much in the center ring as he has been for the past month, says Dan Schnur, who worked for Sen. John McCain in 2000 when the Arizona Republican started the primary contests red-hot but lost the nomination to George W. Bush. "There's an inevitable ebb and flow over the course of a primary campaign. He's not going to avoid that. But starting as the front-runner is a much better place to be than not being the front-runner.''
The aura of inevitability can send primary voters into the arms of other candidates, as Mitt Romney learned In 2012. GOP primary voters turned from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Perry to Rick Santorum before finally settling on Romney – but the speed-dating took a toll on the eventual nominee. Christie's New Jersey record of bipartisan cooperation and his decision to abandon appeals to a court ruling allowing gay marriage in the state mark him as a moderate in the GOP. As a result, he would probably face challenges on the right from libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, outgoing RGA president Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania senator Santorum, a hero of religious conservatives.
While former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democrat most widely seen as an inevitable 2016 candidate, has been collecting awards and giving speeches, Christie has a day job: being governor.
"There's a rhythm to the exposure,'' says Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former congressional leadership aide. "He'll appear when it's important, like right after his election. Now you notice he's gone underground for a little while. He really doesn't need to get out there in a major way with the media until early next year, when Congress comes back (into session) and they start talking about big issues.''
In the meantime, Christie can't just stand still, according to strategists, who offered advice on how the governor could stay top-of-mind until the primaries start:
•Rack up more legislative achievements. Left unfinished from his first term in New Jersey is Christie's vow to cut state income taxes, a trademark conservative credential. "He has a chance that only sitting governors have, to prove his chops by governing in a conservative manner,'' says Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush's spokesman. "My advice to Chris Christie would be, prove it as a governor, not as a guest on a TV show and not as a candidate."
•Travel. Being RGA chairman gives Christie the chance to roam the country, helping elect Republican governors, racking up chits with state officials and meeting big donors along the way. "If he were to travel to other states on his own auspices, it would look pretty presumptuous," Schnur says. "But the RGA chairmanship gives him all the reason in the world to take his message to Iowa and New Hampshire.''
•End the bromance. New Jersey voters love President Obama – the state gave him a 16-point margin in 2012 – but GOP primary voters probably won't. As a result, Christie "shouldn't get any cozier with President Obama than he already has been,'' says Nathan Gonzalez of The Rothenberg Political Report, a non-partisan newsletter. "I don't know if I'd take any long walks on the Jersey Shore with him.''
•Manage media moments. Christie is a master of the YouTube moment, the video snippets that showcase his blunt style and get lots of views — for instance, his directive during Hurricane Irene to "Get the hell off the beach." He's got a sophisticated social media operation that can keep him in circulation while he runs between the New Jersey statehouse and RGA duties across the country. That strength can become a vulnerability if a media moment reinforces a negative image of a candidate. Christie has had some backlash from viral images, including a photograph of him pointing his finger at a teacher that appeared right before Election Day and a 2012 video of the rotund governor going after a heckler on a beachfront boardwalk, ice cream cone in hand.
"He could screw it up by having that one moment where he goes overboard,'' Bonjean says.
How much Christie needs to tone down his brash persona outside his home state is a matter of opinion.
"It will not wear well over time if he is always perceived as the one with the finger poking someone in the chest,'' Fleischer says. "To be successful in states outside the Northeast, he has to find a way, while being true to his character, to tone it down a notch.''
If Schnur were running Christie's campaign, he'd tell the governor to fire away.
"The smartest thing his campaign would do would be to send someone to all his town halls in New Hampshire for him to yell at,'' he says. "Voters look for authenticity. And if Chris Christie is a big, blustery, break-the-china New Jersey kind of guy, that's what they're going to want to see and hear.''