Gov. Christie's high-stakes choice: Will he run again?

TRENTON - September 16, 2012

With those political decisions made, Christie is back to the business of being a high-profile governor and in-demand Republican campaigner. Last week, he packed a Howell gym for one of his signature town-hall meetings, laid out his priorities for the Legislature for the rest of the year and jetted off to North Carolina and Indiana to stump for GOP gubernatorial candidates there.

With a Washington job seemingly out of the picture, Christie still has a major decision to make in coming months: whether to run for re-election next year.

The first-term governor, who turned 50 on Sept. 6, has often said he doesn't make decisions before he has to, and he told reporters during a recent visit to Sea Isle City he won't spend much time thinking about his options until after the November election, which will keep him busy campaigning for Mitt Romney and other Republicans.

"There's no need for me to make any kind of decision until afterward - it's not something I'll even consider until after that," he said.

Nonetheless, Christie has sent some signals that he's thinking about a second term, first by turning down attempts to lure him into national elected politics then by expressing unabashed adulation for his current job, perhaps the most powerful governorship in the country.

"There's going to come a point where you guys are going to have to tumble to the fact I've been actually been telling the truth," Christie said, "that I didn't want to run for president, I didn't want to run for vice president, that I want to be governor of New Jersey. ... I love this job."

What's not to love? The brash-talking Republican has had a meteoric rise within the party, is just coming off the prime speaking assignment at the Republican National Convention and has proven he can raise money like crazy. Oh yeah, and he's brought the Democratic Legislature to its knees more than once since barreling into office in 2010 with the vow to "turn Trenton upside down." With the Democrats' help in a blue-leaning state, he's enacted teacher tenure reforms, capped the growth of property taxes and gotten pension and health care givebacks from public workers.

"Why wouldn't he run for re-election?" said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, one of several polls that have tracked Christie since he ran for governor in 2009. "He's a natural performer. He likes being governor, and despite the noise, he's pretty good at being governor. It's the logical thing for him to do."

Christie's poll numbers have remained good - very good - through his tenure so far. A majority 53 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job he's doing as governor, compared with 42 percent who disapprove, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday. The same poll showed 26 percent approve of the job Steve Sweeney is doing as Senate president, compared with 23 percent who don't.

Christie's poll numbers didn't improve after he gave the party's keynote address in Tampa, but he also has not been hurt long-term by cutting the state budget, taking on public-sector unions or canceling a multibillion-dollar rail tunnel into Manhattan - all issues that Democrats had hoped would dent his popularity.

A further breakdown reveals gender and racial divides among the governor's supporters and detractors, a potential vulnerability.

He is a rock star among men - he carries the group by nearly 2 to 1 - but women are split and two-thirds of black voters disapprove.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, whose polls also show Christie consistently topping 50 percent in approvals, said Christie's strongest play appears to be running for re-election.

"You can run successfully for president as a one-term governor, but you're always at a better starting point if you're an incumbent running from the position of a second-term even if you're not as popular in the second term," Murray said.

But the pollsters agree the governor faces a high-stakes choice: If he runs for re-election and loses, he's done politically.

Christie has both time and money on his side. While any would-be challengers have to put their names out there early enough to begin raising money, boosting their name recognition and generating support among fellow Democrats, Christie can spend the fall campaigning for fellow Republicans facing tight races in other states. By the time he's ready to make the call, late this year or early next year, the Democratic primary field will have taken shape.

"The governor has made it very clear to the people around him that he's focused on the next 60 days and that's it," said his friend and adviser Bill Palatucci. "Let's worry about this election and Mitt Romney and worry about everything else later."

It's the old political adage: one election cycle at a time.

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