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Rothenberg: Is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Overhyped?

Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg
Christie has high approval numbers, but election season may change that.

While this year’s race for governor in Virginia will draw plenty of attention, the 2013 gubernatorial contest in New Jersey looks like a yawner.

But it’s a mistake to draw too grand a conclusion from Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s current standing in the polls, either for how he will perform in November or how his current job approval numbers set him up for a possible presidential run in 2016.

Christie, 50, is being evaluated now by Garden State voters not as a politician or political leader, but rather as a symbol of state pride and survival after the damage done to the state by Hurricane Sandy in October.

The most recent state survey, Quinnipiac University’s Jan. 15-21 poll of registered voters, showed the governor’s job approval at 74 percent, with 56 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents approving of his performance. (In contrast, President Barack Obama’s job approval among the same respondents stood at only 54 percent.)

Christie showed strength across all demographic groups. Even 69 percent of women and 56 percent of blacks approved of how the Republican has handled his job, stunning numbers in a Democratic state.

Christie’s personal “favorable” rating stood at 69 percent, a full 40 points higher than the 29 percent of New Jersey registered voters who had a favorable view of the Republican Party.

Initially, a handful of Democrats, including state Sen. Richard Codey, who served for a time as acting governor and later as the governor, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, were mentioned as potential challengers to the governor. But those big names passed, and party insiders have lined up behind state Sen. Barbara Buono, 59, who announced her candidacy in December.

Christie holds a 41-point lead (63 percent to 22 percent) over Buono, a Middlesex County Democrat who needs to find some fatal flaw in the governor or in his administration during the next nine months to have any chance of pulling off an upset.

But partisan elections usually encourage voters to start to thinking in partisan terms, and given the state’s Democratic bent — it hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 40 years — there are plenty of Democratic voters who now approve of Christie’s performance but will turn negative when they start evaluating his entire record.

That means that the governor’s huge margins in general-election ballot tests could shrink significantly as Election Day approaches.

If the governor does win a second term comfortably, the possibility of a Christie run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 will get plenty of attention from cable television and political pontificators from both parties.

But it would be a mistake to get too carried away about Christie’s prospects in 2016 just because he is almost certain to be re-elected in the Garden State.

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