Who’s that big, Islamophobe-denouncing softie disguised as Chris Christie?

Chris Christie on YouTube. (GovChristie)
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For once, Chris Christie has produced a viral video hit that doesn’t owe its popularity to conservatives.

If you’ve paid any attention to New Jersey politics in the past week, you’ve probably seen the clip of the Republican governor issuing a rousing defense of a Muslim-American lawyer he appointed to a judgeship, a matter that some commentators on the far right had been complaining about last month. (The YouTube video uploaded from the  official “GovChristie” account had been viewed more than 158,000 times as of this writing.)

Christie’s willingness to brand as “crap” the Islamophobic right’s obsession with the supposed encroachment of Sharia law in America was notable not just for its eloquence but also because pretty much no other nationally prominent Republican would dare say it for fear of offending the Muslim-baiting sensibilities that define today’s G.O.P. Suddenly, for the first time since he became governor, it’s liberals and Democrats who are celebrating one of Christie’s YouTube moments.

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Interestingly, given the skill with which Christie has promoted his brand with manufactured-for-YouTube moments, this outburst appears to have been motivated by genuine umbrage. His statement was a natural reaction to a baseless attack on a friend and professional associate, and unlike the much-remarked videos of, say, Christie roughing up some hapless public-school teacher in front of a crowd of supporters at a town hall meeting, this episode seems to have found an audience without any particularly aggressive marketing from Christie’s handlers. (Christie’s made his “crap” remarks a couple of weeks ago; the governor’s office uploaded the video a week later.)

But that's not to say it wasn't good politics, too. In part that’s because New Jersey is home to an unusually large Muslim-American community (the second-largest by percentage in the country, behind Michigan) that politicians risk offending at their own peril. This means that it’s a lot more important for Christie to maintain good relations with his state’s Muslim voters than Republicans in places like Georgia or Oklahoma.

More important, though, Christie’s statement—and the effusive praise it has generated from his political opponents—has given him political cover with New Jersey’s non-Muslim moderates, in a way that could have significant implications for his long-term political future.

For some time now, Christie has faced a growing problem: His national and statewide political prospects are inversely related to one another. So even as his blunt attacks on the media, unions and Democratic activists helped make him a national conservative star, his immediate prospects in blue-state New Jersey have worsened, with his approval rating falling to just 44 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac poll. His Jersey-tough-guy act seems to have gotten particularly stale with women in the Garden State, who give him just a 36 percent approval rating.

This wouldn’t be an issue for Christie if he were willing simply to decide that he was going to play to a national audience, whatever the cost at home. Here the example of Mitt Romney comes to mind. Elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney tried for the next two years to balance meeting the demands of a blue state electorate with his desire to seek the G.O.P. presidential nomination someday. But after the 2004 election, in which his effort to increase his party’s presence in the state legislature failed miserably, he gave up, committing himself to appealing to national conservatives and declining to seek reelection in Massachusetts in 2006.

Christie doesn’t want to follow this route, though. Especially in the wake of his recent health scare, it’s clear now that he won’t be running for president in 2012, despite the best efforts of the activists and donors who have been begging him to jump in. Still, he’s not giving up his White House ambitions. Christie has made it clear that 2016 is very much on his radar. And he’s made it equally clear that he’s committed to winning reelection as governor in 2013. And why not? It’s a job he devoted nearly a decade of his life to pursuing and he’s clearly enjoying it. And he’s good at it, too: Whatever you think of Christie’s politics, he’s been unusually effective in implementing his agenda.

So he has committed himself to threading a very difficult needle, appeasing New Jersey’s left-of-center swing voters in order to survive in 2013 without doing serious damage to the image that has made him a hero to national Republicans and a future White House prospect.

In this context, his defense of Sohail Mohammed is something approaching a political masterstroke. To win over New Jersey's swing voters, Christie needs them to see his occasional tirades as outbursts of nonpartisan, non-ideological common sense, and not as grandstanding for national conservatives. This latest clip is a step in that direction. At the same time, it doesn’t do serious damage to his positioning on the national stage. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin noted last week, the national G.O.P.’s “professional class” shares Christie’s disdain for overt Muslim-baiting. His standing in their eyes has only improved because of his willingness to decry counterproductive bigotry in his own party.

At this point, Christie’s reelection chances are spotty, but he does have a few things going for him. As of now, there’s no obvious Democratic challenger. Few people believe, for instance, that Newark mayor Cory Booker will try to run against him. And another potentially formidable Democrat, former acting governor Richard J. Codey, is probably a non-starter because of poisonous relationships with several Democratic bosses. Those same bosses are also behind-the-scenes Christie allies, and it’s possible that, no matter who the Democratic nominee is, they will quietly work to boost Christie’s reelection effort. And if Barack Obama is reelected next year, Christie will probably benefit; for six straight gubernatorial elections, New Jersey voters have opted for a candidate from the party not controlling the White House.

Still, a 44 percent approval rating is a 44 percent approval rating. Christie needs to do some serious work to earn a second term, and to preserve his national options. His latest viral hit—in which he plays the role of a muscular conservative capable of empathizing like a liberal—is a good start. He’ll probably need some more just like it.