In Christie-Buono duel, it's all about 2016

With two new polls out today that basically show Gov. Christie is the most popular Republican in the country -- and best positioned to beat Hillary Clinton -- my story in today's Inquirer seemed (unintentionally) well timed:

TRENTON - The calendar may say 2013, but this year's New Jersey gubernatorial election is all about 2016.

Republican Gov. Christie, nursing a 30-plus point lead over Democratic challenger State Sen. Barbara Buono, is attracting more attention for a race he hasn't even begun and won't even talk about: the 2016 campaign for the presidency.

There he was in Colorado last month, starting a back-and-forth, six-day feud about national security with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a possible opponent in the Republican presidential primary. Then he was off to Las Vegas for a reelection fund-raiser held by billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly pumped more money into 2012 GOP presidential candidates' campaigns than any other single person.

The Buono campaign strategy is centered on 2016, too.

References to Christie's undying quest to be in the Rose Garden are now part of the Middlesex County state senator's stump speech. She frames Christie's views on just about every issue - gay marriage, abortion, the cancellation of a tunnel into New York - as forsaking moderate New Jerseyans in favor of hard-right Iowa caucus-goers. 

And last week, her campaign spokesman went further than ever, tweeting this: #Govtil2015.

The suggestion is that if Christie announces his presidential candidacy at the same point in the election cycle that then-Sen. Barack Obama did - and simultaneously quits the governorship - he would serve only 13 months of a 48-month term.

The bottom line? Christie would "rather be campaigning in the cornfields of Iowa than creating jobs in New Jersey," Buono says, over and over.

"This is a governor, unfortunately, who has been singularly focused on his aspirations for national office," Buono said last month at a "kitchen table" discussion in a tiny Trenton rowhouse.

At a rally to announce the candidacy of her running mate, union leader Milly Silva, Buono said Christie was "so blinded by the national limelight that the only future he's planning is his own."

A Buono fund-raising e-mail last week made yet another argument in that vein: Let's beat Christie now so we don't have to defend Democrat Hillary Clinton against him in the 2016 presidential race.

"We can deliver a powerful blow to Chris Christie before we ever get to 2016," the e-mail said. "Let's knock him out now."

So far, Buono's 2016 attacks have not helped her gain ground in the race. Christie continues to act as a stealth presidential candidate, declaring that he governs better than Washington politicians, traveling the country collecting campaign dollars, and constantly opining on national issues.

At a gubernatorial forum in Aspen last month, Christie stressed his bona fides as a terrorist-hunting U.S. attorney in the aftermath of 9/11, and drew a line between his tough approach to national security and that of Paul, a libertarian senator skeptical of federal surveillance programs.

The statement was seen as a preview of a possible GOP presidential showdown, with Paul responding by criticizing Christie for his push for federal aid after Sandy - a "gimme, gimme, gimme" mentality for pork, he chided, like a "king of bacon."

The ensuing back-and-forth became the top national political story last week, and when Paul finally offered a détente - suggesting the men have beers together - the governor said he was too busy running for reelection.

That was Wednesday. By Thursday, though, Christie wasn't running for reelection in New Jersey. He was in Las Vegas for a fund-raiser hosted by Adelson. Although the fund-raiser was technically for Christie's gubernatorial reelection campaign, Adelson gave $92 million to Republican groups in the last presidential cycle and is credited with single-handedly propping up the candidacy of Newt Gingrich.

Adelson is the kind of friend any Republican presidential candidate would want, and through his first term as governor, Christie has developed many such friendships.

Among them is U.S. Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), who last month characterized most immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers. Christie raised money for King's reelection last year, and King would be a key conservative endorsement in an Iowa caucus.

Buono posted a Web video attacking Christie for his association with King, and though Christie ultimately criticized King's comment, he didn't rule out campaigning for him again. That brought fresh denouncement from Buono.

This has been the crux of the Buono strategy, to try to force Christie to choose between national conservatives and moderate New Jerseyans.

Her campaign has also highlighted Christie's refusal to give an opinion about the U.S. Supreme Court's June decision striking down part of the Voting Rights Act, which was hailed by conservatives and panned by minorities and Democrats.

The words Christie and president have distracted from the 2013 campaign in other ways.

News reports about a forthcoming book about the 2012 election, for example, have focused on how Mitt Romney considered Christie for the vice presidential ticket but a federal rule posed an impediment. It forbids employees of banks that do business with a state from making political donations to officials of that state.

That brought up a new question: Because Wall Street is the primary source of campaign money for Republican candidates - and because bankers wooed Christie to run for president in the past - would Christie have to resign as governor in order to run for president?

Hence, the #Govtil2015 tweet.

Nonsense, says political scientist Larry Sabato, an expert on political campaigns.

Because of the recent rise of outside groups that can freely collect money from secret donors and funnel that cash to candidates, Christie can benefit from Wall Street money without violating the law, Sabato said. He would just need an unofficial ally to set up a group for him.

"Do you seriously think that Chris Christie will give up a minute of the governorship until he's elected president or vice president?" Sabato asked. "The answer is, no, he will not."

George W. Bush remained Texas governor until after he was elected president, he noted, as did Arkansas' Bill Clinton. 

Asked in January whether he would serve four years if reelected, Christie said, "I have every intention to. I don't see any reason why I wouldn't."

He dismissed talk of 2016, saying, "I don't have any plans to run for president."

The defining question for 2013, then, is not whether New Jersey voters believe him on that point - but whether they care.