A Chris Christie run will not settle much of anything for New Jersey

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Chris Christie. (Photo via the governor's office.)
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The strongest argument for Chris Christie to pass on a presidential campaign has to do with the gig he has now. Few if any governors in America enjoy their jobs like Christie does, and it took nearly a decade of careful planning and positioning for him to get it. As a Republican in a deeply blue state, he could lose it very, very easily.

So it’s hard to see a White House bid amounting to anything but an all-or-nothing risk for Christie. Run and he’ll be pilloried by his home-state foes for skipping out on his job halfway through his first term, and for going back on a year’s worth of adamant, over-the-top denials. Plus, as a national G.O.P. candidate, he’ll presumably be pulled far to the right, further alienating him from the swing voters he depends on in his home state.

Add in the mockery and humiliation that would come from losing to Mitt or Rick and returning to New Jersey with his tail between his legs and you’ve got a pretty good formula for destroying whatever margin for error Christie now has. A successful gubernatorial reelection bid in 2013 after a national failure in 2012 wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot more complicated that what he’d face if he simply stayed put.

This may have something to do with why reports are now indicating that Christie, who sent signals late last week that he was suddenly mulling a ’12 run, has just as suddenly gotten shy about the whole prospect. It may be that the he’s judged the odds of putting together a winning campaign for the G.O.P. nomination too long to justify the risk of losing everything he now has in New Jersey.

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But let’s say Christie does end up saying yes to his national suitors and enters the race. It would make the next two years of Garden State politics a lot less predictable and potentially a lot more fun. Let’s try to answer some of the questions that a Christie presidential candidacy would raise:

Would he have to give up the governorship?

The legal answer is no, and there are plenty of cases of sitting governors keeping their jobs while running national campaigns—Rick Perry is doing it right now, and George W. Bush, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton all did it in the recent past.

But Christie’s home-state standing is far shakier than theirs were when they ran for president. And as governorships go, New Jersey’s—the most constitutionally powerful in America—is a particularly heavy lift. (This is why Christie enjoys his job so much; he is unusually good at understanding and exploiting the power levers at his disposal.)

Trying to manage the state while waging a full-fledged national campaign (with frequent, extended absences from Trenton) could cause a host of headaches for Christie. His effectiveness would be diminished and Democrats would miss no chance to declare that his selfish absenteeism was hurting the state. There would be calls for him to resign for the good of New Jersey, and any dip in his statewide popularity would be turned into a weapon against him at the national level.

Given that the G.O.P. race will probably be resolved by next February or March, Christie would probably be able to hang on to the governorship without much trouble while pursuing the nomination, notwithstanding the effect the run might have on his re-election chances. But if he were to win the nomination, then things could get tricky.

Within the state, the resignation calls would increase, potentially with editorial board support—“New Jersey’s problems demand a full-time governor!” And he’d be looking at a general election in which the problems caused by his absence, real and perceived, would be magnified by the national press, not to mention the Obama campaign. Christie might then decide to mimic Bob Dole, who resigned from the Senate after winning the G.O.P. nod in 1996, in the hopes of sparing himself embarrassing grief at home. Of course, if he did this, he’d also invite comparisons to Sarah Palin, another ambitious first-term governor who walked out after two years on the job.

And if Christie were to resign?

Then New Jersey gets to try out its new gubernatorial line of succession. The office of lieutenant governor was created in the run-up to the 2009 election, as a reaction to the political chaos that followed the resignations of governors Christie Whitman and (to a lesser extent) Jim McGreevey. It was sold partly as a tool to bring more women and minorities into power: Gubernatorial nominees pick their own running-mates after winning primaries, and both Christie and Jon Corzine chose women in ’09. That means that if Christie leaves, 52-year-old Kim Guadagno, a former Sheriff in Monmouth County, would take over as governor.

But there’s a twist. In any other state with a lieutenant governor, Guadagno would fill the rest of Christie’s term. But New Jersey’s law calls for a special election to be held in November, unless the vacancy occurs within 60 days of Election Day. That means that if Christie were to resign before early September ’12, there’d be an election for the final year of his term in November ’12, with nominees possibly chosen by each state party committee, not in primaries. (If he were to resign after early September, the election wouldn’t take place until November ’13, meaning it would be for a full four-year term.)

The chaos that this would cause would be another reason for Christie to resist resignation calls. Republicans in New Jersey say he genuinely likes Guadagno, but her low profile might make the rest of the party very uneasy about anointing her for a special election campaign, potentially creating a very uncomfortable situation, and another home-state headache for Christie. Plus, Christie would probably be a general-election underdog in New Jersey: Republicans, who were thrilled to get the governorship back in ’09, would hate to gamble it on presidential-year turnout.

So let’s say Christie doesn’t resign, but that he does lose a White House bid ...

The big question then would be how much fallout he’d suffer in New Jersey from a national failure. Here’s a guess: It would be worse for Christie to lose in the G.O.P. primaries. It’s hard to see how anything that he’d do as a candidate for the Republican nomination could help him in New Jersey. As noted above, he’d have to go back on his word in order to enter the race, would face damaging calls of abandonment, and would be compelled to publicly assuage a right-wing constituency that looks nothing like the liberal-leaning Jersey electorate. And if this were to culminate in defeat, then it would all look like a particularly foolish and narcissistic waste of time.

At least if he were to win the nomination, Christie would demonstrate that he really had been answering a serious call. And by running to the middle in the fall, he’d have an opportunity to undo some of the damage from his primary-season pandering.

A close loss to Obama might allow Christie to return to New Jersey with his head held high, or at least to avoid appearing as if he had ditched the people who elected him in pursuit of a ridiculous vanity run. But if he were to lose to Obama, it would presumably mean that Christie had been beaten up pretty badly by the Democrats, and that his gubernatorial record had been used against him to devastating effect.

The example of Dukakis comes to mind here. His standing in Massachusetts declined sharply in the fall of 1988 as George H.W. Bush’s campaign relentlessly attacked his leadership as governor; two months after the election, Dukakis (who had won 69 percent of the vote in his 1986 reelection campaign) reluctantly announced that he wouldn’t run for another term in 1990.

Christie’s first major decision after a losing presidential campaign would be whether to seek reelection in 2013.

If he decided to run?

Presumably, he’d win the G.O.P. nomination, although depending on how badly his White House campaign goes, a primary challenge would be possible. Say, for instance, that Christie wins the presidential nomination and moves decisively to the middle in the general election, then loses to Obama. Conservative activists, nationally and in New Jersey, would probably blame his defeat on ideological treason and might then target him in the ’13 primary.

But let’s say Christie gets his own party’s nomination. Who would the Democrats nominate? The name that gets the most attention is Newark’s ambitious, media-friendly mayor, Cory Booker. He’s well known, broadly popular (outside his own city, at least), and has an enviable network of national donors.

But here things get interesting, because the word is that two Democratic power-players who are close to Christie are encouraging speculation about a gubernatorial run by Booker. The power-players in question are South Jersey boss George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. Norcross and “Joe D” have been instrumental in helping Christie push through his agenda. (Many Democrats also suspect they were instrumental in helping Christie defeat Corzine in ’09.)

With friends like these, Booker be wise to think twice about ’13, especially with Frank Lautenberg unlikely to seek reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2014, when he will be 90. Plus, Booker has now been mayor for five years, and while an argument can be made that his record is a good one relative to the challenges he faced, his promises to transform the city haven’t been fulfilled.

It’s also unlikely that Booker would have a free shot at the Democratic nomination for governor. Another broadly popular Democrat, former governor Dick Codey, who succeeded McGreevey but was blocked from seeking election to a full term by a free-spending Corzine, is apparently eyeing the race. A recent poll showed Booker and Codey in a dead heat in a prospective primary, with every other potential candidate far behind.

Unlike Booker, Codey has been a steadfast opponent of Christie’s agenda, and was one of the most vocal Democrats in Trenton in fighting the public-employee pension overhaul that Christie pushed through the legislature this year (with pivotal help from Norcross and Joe D). Codey has his own problems, mainly stemming from his hostile relationships with Norcross and Joe D (and Joe D’s mentor, Newark boss Steve Adubato Sr.). It was the Norcross/Joe D alliance that stripped Codey of the state Senate presidency two years ago, and without that perch it would be tougher for Codey to raise money for a statewide campaign.

Other Democrats are also in the mix. (There's good scouting report on the prospective field here.)

It seems logical that the Democratic race will attract more interest if Christie runs for president and loses, only because he’ll probably seem more vulnerable then than he now does.

And if Christie decided not to run after losing a presidential bid?

The prospective Democratic field would look the same. The Republican race would be wide open. (A good rundown of the possible G.O.P. candidates can be found here.) The biggest loser in this scenario would probably be Guadagno. For one thing, she’d be denied a chance to step in as acting governor, something that would radically increase her name recognition and her ’13 prospects. More importantly, a lame-duck Christie, even if he wanted to, probably wouldn’t have enough clout to help her secure the nomination.

But what if Christie actually became president?

Then Guadagno would become the acting governor sometime between Election Night 2012 and January 20, 2013. She would hold the job through the end of Christie’s term (January 2014), but each party would use a primary to pick its nominee for the ’13 race. As president of the United States, Christie would have an awful lot to say about the New Jersey G.O.P.’s next nominee for governor. Most likely, he’d embrace Acting Governor Guadagno and that would end the matter.

The prospective Democratic field would look the same.