Taking hits from left and right

Here's my story in Sunday's paper, looking at the campaign theme against Christie -- this year from the Dems, and maybe in 2016 from the right:

The Democratic sound bite against reelecting Gov. Christie is taking shape, and it goes something like this: Christie is really running for president of the United States, not governor of New Jersey.

That theme has emerged over and over in recent days from the mouths and keyboards of the presumptive Democratic nominee, State Sen. Barbara Buono, and her allies.

When Christie took a noncommittal stance on gun-control legislation, Buono e-mailed this to supporters: "By pandering to the right wing of the Republican party, the Governor is putting his national political ambitions above the safety of New Jersey's families."

When Christie referenced the dysfunction in Washington during his budget speech last week, Buono spokesman David Turner tweeted: "Isn't he running for Governor of NJ? Why is he running against Washington? #wrongrace."

That drew this response from state Democratic Party spokeswoman Alicia D'Alessandro: "we all know everything @GovChristie does is about winning an office 177 miles away from Trenton ..."

Emily's List, the Democratic political action committee that endorsed Buono, said it more bluntly: "He wants to be your President. . . . We have to expose his extremism now, and prevent him from trying to take his regressive agenda nationwide."

The argument that Christie wants to be the 2016 GOP presidential nominee and not governor of New Jersey is good business: It may help Buono, who is millions behind in fund-raising, collect dollars from national liberals.

But it is also a potentially effective campaign strategy because the theme can be applied to just about any issue she wants to bring up: Christie vetoed gay marriage, even though most New Jerseyans favor it. He pulled out of a global-warming treaty, cut funding for Planned Parenthood, repeatedly rejected a millionaires' tax, and has refused to answer questions about whether he supports an assault-weapons ban.

All of this can be portrayed by Democrats as Christie pandering to the American right and forsaking sensible-minded New Jersey. 

But the irony is that this Democratic criticism is crystallizing just as Christie is facing his first real backlash from national Republicans. His path to the Republican presidential nomination - as best as can be gauged about a race nearly four years away - looks more complicated than ever.

Christie, remember, delivered the keynote speech at the Republican convention last summer in Tampa, Fla., after being heavily courted to run for president and then short-listed for vice president. Opinion polls indicate he is the most popular Republican governor in the country, and last year he received a standing ovation at a Conservative Political Action Conference event that he headlined.

But this year, Christie couldn't even get an invite to CPAC's big annual event.

Former presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will be speaking there later this month - as will possible future presidential candidates (and possible Christie rivals) Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

So what happened with Christie?

"Snubbed," is how the headlines put it.

"I can't sweat the small stuff," is how Christie blew it off.

"CPAC is like the all-star game for professional athletes; you get invited when you have had an outstanding year," explained American Conservative Union chairman Al Cardenas, who runs the conference, in a National Journal interview. "Hopefully [Christie] will have another all-star year in the future, at which time we will be happy to extend an invitation."

Politicos offered several explanations for why Christie got kicked off the conservative all-star team, beginning with his "embrace" (in reality, a half-hug) of President Obama after Sandy and right before the presidential election.

Other incidents: Christie's me-centric GOP keynote speech; his support for a pork-laden Sandy aid package and his roasting of the highest elected Republican in the country, House Speaker John Boehner, for holding up a vote on that package; his scolding of the National Rifle Association for a TV ad that referenced Obama's children.

Cardenas even cited Christie's decision to have New Jersey accept the added Medicaid funding available under Obama's health-care law. But that rang hollow: The governor's decision came after the snub. And besides, Republican governors more conservative than Christie had already decided to take the Medicaid money Obamacare offered.

The backlash to the backlash was equally severe, with some Republicans saying CPAC was jeopardizing the GOP as a major party if it sidelined a talent like Christie. Romney even sent Christie a $3,800 campaign check last week, indicating that he, maybe, doesn't blame Christie for the Obama half-hug.

And in the end, this may all work out for Christie anyway. Because as he runs for governor against a liberal in a blue state, does he really want to have his picture taken with Sarah Palin at CPAC? The Democrats would start printing the attack flyers as soon as the flash popped.

If Christie wins reelection in November, expect him to be back at CPAC next year. Because to play in 2016, he's going to have to be a starting player on that all-star team.