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Speaking as “a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush” the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Christie said: “I just want us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought.”

Mr. Christie’s remark was aimed squarely at Mr. Paul and was meant to stake out an early position as a strong defense hawk in the mold of Ronald Reagan in an era of mounting terrorist threats to America’s homeland.

Mr. Christie’s star is rising at a time when the GOP is looking for a fearless, no-nonsense leader who doesn’t pull punches. His popularity cuts across party lines, yet he is one of the most sought-after Republican speakers. And he’s clearly running in 2016.

Other Republican governors are weighing their chances at a time when Americans may be hungry to replace Mr. Obama with someone who is not a big-spending creature of Washington.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has cut the state’s budget and turned around its economy, is running high in the polls. If he wins re-election next year, he will be a strong contender from a pivotal state whose votes Republicans need if they are to take back the White House.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became a conservative hero when he fought the state’s powerful, public employee unions, overcame a recall election and cut the size of government. If he wins re-election next year, which now seems likely, he has bigger ambitions in mind.

Several freshman senators also are at the top of the presidential list, including Marco Rubio of Florida; Mr. Paul, who appeals to a large bloc of libertarian voters who have given the GOP a much-needed dose of energy; and Ted Cruz of Texas, who is winning rave reviews for a speaking tour of Iowa two weeks ago.

However, 2016 may be shaping up as the year of the outsider. Of the past 10 presidential elections, seven of the winners were governors.

When America gets into trouble, voters begin looking for a proven chief executive who doesn’t need any on-the-job training.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.