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Centrist or a conservative? Christie faces fork in the road for 2016

A Meet the Press roundtable discusses New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's potential to represent the future of the Republican Party.

Don’t expect Chris Christie to glide toward 2016 without challenges, even if he achieves the rare accomplishment of winning a second term as the Republican governor of deep-blue New Jersey in Tuesday's election against Democratic nominee Barbara Buono.

As he pivots toward a possible bid for the presidency, Christie will have to decide: Should he firmly embrace the relatively-centrist persona he worked so hard to burnish during his first term, or move toward the right in hopes of winning over conservative activists who weigh heavily upon presidential nominating contests?

At first glance, Christie’s potential as a national figure appears endless. He boasts a high profile in the national media and can draw on the lucrative New York-area fundraising base. Perhaps most importantly, if his re-election on Tuesday goes mostly as polls have predicted, Christie will be able to tout a track record of winning in a Democratic state and with independent, women and minority voters – important blocs among which Republican presidential nominees have struggled in recent cycles.

Yet Christie’s willingness to sometimes defy fellow Republicans and work with Democrats – most notably President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy – has prompted misgivings among conservatives whom Christie must court to have any hope of snagging the GOP nomination in 2016.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he is not concerned about a so-called lack of support from Tea Party Republicans during his reelection bid.

“No Republican will be successful in the Northeast if they’re not good at outreach to groups that aren’t traditional Republicans. And Chris Christie is excellent at it – he’s so excellent at it that Republicans don’t trust him,” said Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush.

“If Chris Christie wants to run for president it’s his job to take very impressive results and make his case,” Fleischer added.

Make no mistake: Christie is on relatively strong footing with the GOP, and its core conservative members. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans view him positively, according to last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, versus 19 percent who see the New Jersey governor negatively; 31 percent of self-described conservatives (who generally make up the core of the GOP) see Christie positively, 18 percent negatively.

Still, conservatives appear more enamored with Republicans willing to force confrontation with Democrats and Obama, not Republicans who are willing to compromise. According to the most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, 39 percent of Republicans see firebrand Texas Sen. Ted Cruz positively, while 14 percent see him negatively; conservatives favor Cruz, 40 percent to 11 percent.

The question for Christie is whether he feels the need to mimic the hard-charging style of Cruz and other popular conservatives, or wage an unapologetic defense of his style of governance to sometimes-unforgiving Republican primary voters.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tells TODAY's Matt Lauer that while they've made "incredible progress," they are still fighting to get the federal funds promised to them.

“I think he may have a tough time in Iowa and South Carolina if he continues to move in this much more moderate direction,” said Sarah Sanders, who helped guide her father Mike Huckabee’s campaign to victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, where social conservatives reign supreme.

“I think he's a force to be reckoned with,” she said. “But he hasn't really been vetted yet on a national stage, and I don't think the jury’s in on him yet.”

For conservatives, Christie’s embrace of Obama during Sandy and subsequent chastising of fellow Republicans in Congress for slowing relief spending is a source of soreness. Social conservatives fret over the governor’s decision to sign legislation to outlaw therapy for gay teenagers intended to change their sexual orientation. Christie spoke out against a court ruling effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in New Jersey, but conservatives wish he’d fought the decision more doggedly.

“There’s a lot of Gov. Christie that I really like, but there are parts where he’s given me reason for pause,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a possible 2014 Senate candidate who heads Iowa’s socially conservative Family Leader. Referencing the same-sex marriage issue, he asked: “The fact is, why don’t you challenge the court?”

“The secret sauce is that he’s like everybody’s next-door neighbor,” Katon Dawson, a fixture of South Carolina Republican politics, said of Christie. But he warned that the governor’s pugnacious New Jersey style could wear thin on voters outside of the Northeast. “Will they like him in South Carolina? The jury’s out on that.”

Chuck Todd reports on the status of the Virginia races and also talks about Chris Christie's campaign in New Jersey.

Myriad factors could shape the manner in which Christie might mount a bid for the GOP nomination. Christie might find ample space to run as an electable centrist if a variety of hard-charging conservatives or Tea Party types enter the race. And he could just as easily skip or participate lightly in Iowa and South Carolina – both early nominating contests dominated by conservatives.

Such a strategy could enable Christie to run a campaign more consistent with the persona he’s cultivated during his first term as governor.

“Mostly, he’s willing to work with people. And that’s the problem with Washington: there are too many Republicans and too many Democrats who don’t want to be seen with anybody else on the other side,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi. “I’m a member of the club who thinks that somebody who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is your ally, not a 20 percent traitor.”

Christie also has a chance – like many other Republican governors – to distance himself from congressional Republicans’ deteriorating popularity come 2016.

Mel Evans / AP file

The N.J. politician's straight-talk and tough policies put him in the national spotlight — but he hasn't yet made a public decision about a potential presidential bid.

“In the same spirit in which George Bush ran in ’99 as a compassionate conservative to distance himself from Congress, there’s still room in 2016 for someone to do something similar,” Fleischer said.

But those factors don’t even begin to touch on the challenges which Christie or any other Republican contender will have to handle in the crucible of a presidential campaign. For Christie in particular, he’ll inevitably have to address his girth; he underwent lap-band weight-loss surgery earlier in 2013, and has shed some pounds. He also released medical records during his gubernatorial campaign declaring him to be in good health.

And there’s also the question of whether his stereotypically New Jersey, in-your-face style could come off as abrasive to voters in the heartland or the South – staples of Republican electoral victories.

“New Jersey’s a hard-hitting brutal place. That’s what has him ready to run,” Dawson said. “New Jersey’s just as mean as South Carolina – it’s just a different accent.”

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