POSTED: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 - 3:22pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 2:59pm
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Charging out of last week's Republican National Committee meeting in Boston, Chris Christie's message was clear: The party needs to ditch fights over ideology and get back to winning elections.
"I am in this to win," the New Jersey governor told establishment Republicans. "I am going to do anything I need to do to win."
Christie aims to do just that in his home state, where he's expected to be easily re-elected in November.
But others see his winning attitude, popularity, and personal forcefulness as qualities that make him a possible favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Christie says he's focused on his current job and plans to keep it. Growing outside expectations for a national candidacy bring positive attention that can amplify his message and agenda for the state.
But the leading edge of presidential politics -- welcomed by him or not -- also comes with new scrutiny and pressures that will test his ability to govern effectively if he is in fact positioning himself for a run -- and a win.
"The politics -- he got three big audiences he's got to be worried about: New Jersey, where you have a moderate to left-leaning audience. Soon, he's going to be worried about Republican caucus-goers (in Iowa). Going to be much more conservative. And then at the end, he's going to be worried about those swing voters," said Jennifer Millerwise Dyck, a Republican strategist and former George W. Bush campaign spokeswoman.
As governor, Christie finds himself in a far different position than other potential 2016 contenders.
Those in Congress flirting with presidential ambitions can posture, propose bills that go nowhere, and largely avoid accountability for a period of time, if they choose.
Those outside of government entertaining White House possibilities may have more room to position themselves; travel more freely to key states and otherwise test the waters without having to think twice about how a tweet, or a speech or a photo-op might play at home.
Christie must run New Jersey. He must make decisions that effect nearly nine million people - execute policy, sign or reject bills, and be a visible booster for a state where the economy continues to recover slowly and still feels the effects of Superstorm Sandy last October that devastated parts of economically vital Jersey Shore.
Though there is an upside that may favor winning.
Beginning with Thomas Jefferson, 17 governors have run for president and won, and two of the last three Republican presidents -- George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- were governors before they entered the White House.
Republican voters, too, seem to prefer candidates with Christie's background. One April poll showed 59% of GOP voters said they would prefer a governor as their party's nominee, compared to 23% who opted for a senator.
"As a candidate, it is probably helpful to be a governor," said John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "You are making decisions, you are exercising leadership, in a way that you can't do if you are one person in a legislative body."
But the up and down nature of what Christie faces was clear over the past several days.
There was his speech in Boston, a largely positive moment for him.
Then it was back to business.
In the span of a few days, Christie approved edible forms of marijuana to be available to qualified minors, vetoed a weapons ban and decided to outlaw gay conversion therapy for minors in his state.
Each decision was viewed through a presidential political lens and presented complex challenges that impacted the lives of people in his state.
A centrist by comparison?
When Christie forbid gay conversion therapy for minors, many conservatives took to Twitter to critique the decision.
"The future Democrat president candidate?" asked Tom Orr. "If Chris Christie gets the Republican bid for President I will not vote Republican," tweeted Brian Vazquez.
For his part, Christie has been outspoken in favor of compromise and working with Democrats.
"We can stick to our principles and still come together to compromise," Christie said on Monday. "Compromise is not a dirty word. It is the way this country was built. And we need to get things done for the people that elect us."
But to many he is seen as a centrist in a party that has steadily swung away from the center.
The same traits that make Christie popular in New Jersey and a potentially strong presidential candidate in a general election could keep him from winning anything beyond another four years in Trenton.
"Common sense sells. He's great on that. He's a great national candidate. He will be great in a general election, if he makes it that far," said CNN "Crossfire" host and Republican analyst S.E. Cupp. "The problem will be he will have to get through a primary."
CNN contributor and New York Times columnist Charles Blow agreed that Christie has some crossover appeal. But his appeal to moderates will hurt him with the hard right in his party.
"This is the kind of Republican that you could get more moderates behind. Maybe you could shave off a few Democrats," Blow said. "But you cannot escape the Republican primary process and that process is much more conservative than Republicans in general, and definitely much more conservative than the American populace and electorate."
But is Chris Christie really a centrist?
But to get to a general election, Christie needs to capture the nomination, which has favored conservative positions.
The Republican governor is anti-abortion -- a decision he made years ago. At a 2011 anti-abortion rally at the New Jersey statehouse, Christie said that "every life is precious and a gift from God."
Christie is also against same-sex marriage and lampooned the Supreme Court earlier this year for striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal benefits for same-sex spouses.
"I don't think he is a centrist," said Weingart, pointing out that many of his positions are conservative, despite that fact that both houses of the New Jersey legislature are controlled by Democrats.
"That may or may not be tempering the decisions he would make if he had Republican majorities in both houses," Weingart concluded.
Will his persona wear on voters?
The list of ways you could use to describe Christie is long: brash, unvarnished, confrontational, loud, and the list goes on.
He has been described as an "average joe," someone who speaks like many of the voters who will go to the ballot box and vote for him. That was clear when he Christie gave an answer about why he started the public argument with Paul.
"I was asked a question at a forum in Aspen and I gave an answer. I was asked a question at a forum in Aspen and I gave an answer," he said. "If you ask me a question, I give an answer. That's what people expect from people in public life."
Christie's directness, however, also comes with a downside.
"New Jersey voters take it with a grain of salt," Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, said of Christie's forwardness. "That has certainly been attractive to voters outside New Jersey, but I am not sure it plays everywhere. If you go out to the Midwest, I think it has an appeal for a limited amount of time."
Murray said the bigger problem for Christie is whether or not he can maintain that bluntness in face of the tightly controlled world of presidential politics where a unscripted remark can send the front-runner back into the pack.
"We are now seeing decisions being made where running for president is at the front of his mind," Murray said, pointing to the vetoing the ban on guns and his decision on gay conversation therapy. "That, at some point, could undercut his image as being authentic."
That issue is one that illustrates the challenge of governing a state and running nationally, and in the end, winning - or not.