OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Move to the right or try to pull the GOP away from the tea party and toward the center? That is the question Gov. Chris Christie now faces after cruising to victory Tuesday in New Jersey's gubernatorial race and turns his attention to the prospect of a 2016 presidential bid.
Some Republicans watching the final stages of the governor's race say a decisive Christie win will send a message to the national party that the GOP can triumph without catering to the far right.
Big-money Republican donors say the victory will become a rallying point as they battle Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and his tea party allies for tactical supremacy in Congress and for the upper hand in jockeying for the 2016 presidential nomination.
"His actions have galvanized the mainstream of the Republican Party to wake up and say, 'We need to do something to get this party back,'" said Bobbie Kilberg, a top fundraiser who blamed Mr. Cruz and his allies for tarnishing the GOP image with the 16-day shutdown.
"I think Chris Christie has always been good for mainstream center-right Republicans, and I think this reaffirms that," Ms. Kilberg said. "I think he is one of the rare officeholders in America today who has across-the-board appeal, and if the Republican Party is going to win back the presidency, they have to have broader appeal, not just speak to a narrow base."
The big victory also poses a political dilemma for Mr. Christie, who would have to choose to tack to the right to mend fences and boost his chances with the party base in presidential primaries, or double down on his centrist path to make the argument that he is the Republican Party's most "electable" choice against Hillary Rodham Clinton or another Democrat.
Long a favorite of deep-pocketed Republican donors from the Northeast, Mr. Christie is expected to win in a state where Republicans traditionally struggle. Democrat Cory Booker won by a 10-point margin in a special New Jersey election last month to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy.
Opinion polls showed Mr. Christie leading by as much as 30 percentage points and succeeding in reaching women, young voters and minorities — areas where other Republican candidates have had difficulties.
President Obama, who traveled to Virginia over the weekend to stump for gubernatorial hopeful Terry McAuliffe, did not find the time to travel north to campaign for Ms. Buono.
"I and the rest of the world will be shocked if it's not an incredible margin of victory," said Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who campaigned with Mr. Christie last week. "Political pundits, especially in Washington, have said that in a state where there's six, seven or eight hundred thousand more Democrats than Republicans, if he were to win by more than 20 points, that's a national statement — and it probably is."
EYE ON 2016
The jury is still out on how well Mr. Christie would fare with voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which hold the opening primary contests, and where social conservatives and tea party activists play major roles in picking winners. He is seen as having far less appeal to the party base than likely rivals such as Mr. Cruz or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Mr. Christie rankled many party activists this year by leveling sharp criticism at House Republican leaders for not moving faster on a $50 billion Superstorm Sandy relief package and then by agreeing to expand Medicaid rolls in his state, a key part of President Obama's health care law.
More recently, he announced his support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and dropped an appeal of a New Jersey court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage — a move that drew the ire of Robert Vander Plaats, the influential president of the Iowa Christian conservative organization Family Leader.
"The base of the Republican Party is not going to go for that," he warned.
Mr. Christie still has a huge base of fans who love his blunt political style and his high-profile scraps with public-sector unions over pension and health care benefits.
Mr. LoBiondo said Mr. Christie's critics need to decide: "Do they want to demand the perfect and wind up with Hillary Clinton or whoever it is and then argue amongst ourselves why somebody wasn't perfect enough to fit the bill for everybody? Or do we understand that having 80 percent of what we like is better than having 0 percent?"
Mr. Christie, a former state's attorney, also could be in the right place at the right time, as veteran fundraisers and party elders seek someone to steer the party away from the tactics Mr. Cruz and his allies employed during the government shutdown. Many senior party donors have sat on the sidelines in the nation's other gubernatorial race, declining to help tea party favorite state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in his Virginia race.
"The vast majority of large and active donors are bothered by the self-inflicted wounds that we imposed on ourselves with the shutdown, and they are not particularly pleased with those who were perceived as the leaders who held to that," said Fred Malek, a Republican Party fundraiser. "Everyone understands that Obamacare is a terribly flawed policy and should not be executed in this country, but at the same time, people thought it was futile effort to defund it. We ought to have core beliefs, but you have to mix it with some elements of pragmatism."
Mr. Malek said the dysfunction in Washington offers a particular opening for a Republican governor to run for president "because it demonstrates how badly Washington is operated and how badly out of touch it is with the American people."
Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a top Republican Party fundraiser, said the shutdown "scared the hell out of donors" and the business community is not comfortable with the "burn-the-house-down mentality" of the party's more conservative wing.
Mr. Van Dongen said the shutdown elevates the stock of Republicans who come off as "more reasonable and more willing to take half a loaf to move the ball down the court," and that could bolster the stock of Mr. Christie.
"Christie is certainly an immediate poster child for that," he said.
With members of his family often in tow — as well as guest appearances from former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez — Mr. Christie closed out his re-election campaign with a weeklong, 46-stop bus tour, parachuting into traditional diners, restaurants and senior centers, and kissing babies, signing baseballs and posing for hundreds of photographs.
On the stump, he casts himself as a post-partisan figure, telling crowds that he is courting constituencies with deep ties to Democrats, including black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters. Speaking at a site a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, Mr. Christie said he is taking a page from the 1985 campaign playbook of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who won re-election by 47 percentage points.
Mr. Kean "ran a race the way that we have run a race, which wanted to include everyone in New Jersey — that wants to ask everyone for their vote, not just Republicans for their vote, but independents for their vote and Democrats for their vote," Mr. Christie said. "What winds up happening when you do that is you create an energy that creates a tidal wave, and that political tidal wave is getting ready to come in on Nov. 5 if we do the rest of the work that we need to do."
The tour started the day after the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which has strengthened Mr. Christie's bond with voters even as it further angered Republican activists, given the governor's embrace of Mr. Obama just days before the presidential election.
"What he did for Sandy was unbelievable," said Fay Eckstein, an 89-year-old who had never voted for a Republican before supporting Mr. Christie in 2009. "And I liked that he went with Obama, the two of them. I can't forget that. That made him not just a governor, it just made him a good person."
At stop after stop, people urged Mr. Christie to run for the White House. Some told their children, spouses and friends that they were looking at the next commander in chief.
"I think he is the next president, to be honest with you," said George Mazzucco, the 65-year-old co-owner of the Ritz Diner in Livingston, where Mr. Christie grew up.
Janet Borbotti also savored the idea of a Christie presidency. "I would trust him with my savings account," she said.
Mr. Christie has refused to commit to serving a full second four-year term as governor, but also has resisted the idea that he is looking beyond re-election. "Let's get through next Tuesday first," he told patrons at a Bloomfield's Nevada Diner. "First things first."
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