When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie swept through Washington, D.C., on Thursday to lobby for funds to rebuild his state after Superstorm Sandy, he carried public approval ratings higher than any of the elected officials he met with, including his storm buddy President Obama.
Three polls in the past two weeks show Christie with soaring popularity after the Sandy crisis, which earned him an even higher national profile than his keynote speech at the Republican convention in August. Christie's best poll result, Fairleigh-Dickinson University's PublicMind Poll released Nov. 26, showed him with a 77% job-approval rating.
On Thursday, he headed from meetings with Obama and Congressional leaders to his first appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a sure sign he's got buzz.
Not a bad time to announce a re-election bid, which Christie did last week. Now he's just waiting to see whether his Democratic opponent in 2013 will be Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the only New Jersey politician who approaches him in name recognition and popular appeal.
Booker has said he will decide by Christmas whether he wants to enter the governor's race. He is currently in the news for his week-long effort to live on food stamps, and his turn on The Daily Show comes Wednesday.
Storm recovery will be the central theme of next year's governor's race, says Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin. Christie has estimated costs of the storm at close to $40 billion just in New Jersey.
"Sandy changed everything," Dworkin says. "The next governor will be responsible for rebuilding New Jersey, in particular rebuilding our iconic Jersey Shore, which is much more than a beachfront. It is part of the state's identity. For Chris Christie, the opportunity to create that legacy, to not leave work unfinished, was part of the reason why he made his decision."
New Jersey faced economic troubles even before Sandy: Unemployment is at 9.7%, higher than the national rate of 7.9%. State tax revenue has not kept pace with Christie's robust 7.2% growth projection made last February -- which may necessitate midyear budget cuts.
But that's not going to be Christie's undoing, says his political strategist Mike DuHaime. Voters, he says, are "going to be looking for somebody who is tough enough and strong enough to make the tough decisions."
Sandy could also affect Christie's political fortunes beyond next November, since he is considered a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
"How he navigates this new political terrain in the aftermath of Sandy will be how he's perceived nationally," says Krista Jenkins, executive director of PublicMind, a research firm.
The storm tempered Christie's partisan image, thanks to his embrace of Obama -- literal and figurative -- in Sandy's wake. But he's still a Republican: Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in February; he's expected to veto a minimum-wage increase now on his desk. On Thursday, after leaving his meeting with the president, he vetoed for the second time a bill to create a state-run health care exchange to implement Obama's 2010 health care law.
In Booker, Christie would face a well-financed opponent with his own national following. A head-to-head matchup in a Public Policy Polling survey shows Christie beating Booker by 14 percentage points -- but that's closer than Christie against other Democratic potential candidates, including state Senate President Steve Sweeney and former governor Richard Codey.
Booker could skip the governor's race and run for the Senate in 2014, when Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg will come up for re-election at the age of 90.
If Booker loses the governor's race to Christie, "does that destroy the Booker brand -- that's a real question -- or can he turn around and run for Senate the next year?" Dworkin asks.
New Jersey hasn't had a Republican senator since 1972 or voted Republican for president since 1988.
John Wisniewski -- a state Assemblyman, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a potential candidate for Christie's job -- compares Christie to President George H.W. Bush, who enjoyed tremendous popularity during the Persian Gulf War but lost re-election less than two years later.
"Any Democrat in a general election against Chris Christie starts off, without lifting a finger, with 47% of the vote," he says. "It's a much closer election than any one would believe at this point in time."
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