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Where does Chris Christie go from here?

From Msnbc.com's Tom Curry
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has enjoyed a week of positive buzz.

The governor began the week by standing out from the crowd of pundits and politicians, striking a rhetorical balance on the proposed mosque near the World Trade Center site.

“I understand acutely the pain and sorrow and upset of the family members who lost loved ones that day at the hands of radical Muslim extremists. And their sensitivities and concerns have to be taken into account,” he said. But he added, “We cannot paint all of Islam with that brush. ...We have to bring people together.”

He condemned the mosque “being used as a political football by both parties.” And he got in a slap at President Obama: “what disturbs me about the president's remarks is that he is now using it as a political football as well.”

A new Quinnipiac survey released Thursday found that 51 percent of his state’s voters think Christie is doing a good job as governor; among independents, 61 percent approve of his performance.

New Jersey voters surveyed in the poll were split on President Obama’s job approval: 47 percent to 47 percent – this is in a state the president carried with 57 percent in 2008.

Another New Jersey poll, the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll conducted Aug. 6-8, found only 39 percent saying Christie was doing an excellent or good job as governor.

Despite that, the poll showed the governor has enviable traits for a politician: 74 percent agree he is independent and 70 percent view him as a strong leader.

“I think the party is where Chris Christie is,” said NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Wednesday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “There are people like Chris Christie who are the future leaders of the Republican Party.” To which Joe Scarborough responded that Christie “is going to be on everybody’s short ticket (for vice president) in 2012” – a clip that Christie’s staff touts on the governor’s Youtube site.

Finally the Republican Governors Association (RGA) announced it would debut early next month a 20-minute film tribute to Christie and his victory over Democrat Jon Corzine in last year’s election.

Target audience: GOP activists on their laptops. “A large number of grassroots conservatives are going to want to watch it,” said RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf.

“There is not one iota of political benefit to these films,” scoffed Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. “They are a complete waste of time and money, but as long as the RGA wants to keep throwing their money at them, I'm all for it.”

He added, “When 2010 voters head to the polls this year, Chris Christie will be the last thing on their minds.”

Christie’s message is clear, old-school Republican: “We said we wanted to have less spending, smaller government, lower taxes, and common-sense regulation that was going to grow private-sector jobs.” His budget will cut planned state spending by $11 billion.

“Republicans across the country need to get back to our brand,” Christie says.

His own brand seems to be doing just fine for the moment, but where do things go from here for Christie?

When I asked Daschle about Christie last month, he told me: “Republicans are in a desperate search for a leader. They have about ten people who are competing for the claim of leader of the party. Unfortunately for them, nine of the ten are claiming leadership for reasons that have nothing to do with what they do in office.”

Christie is different from those would-be leaders, Daschle implied. “Chris Christie comes along and, frankly, to his credit does exactly what he said he was going to do, does exactly what Jon Corzine said he was going to do. And he’s made lot of noise in New Jersey and a lot of conservatives take this as a rallying cry for an agenda that they want put forth.”

But he added “The reality is that Christie is at a 35 percent approval rating and I would not be surprised at all if Chris Christie were a one-term governor.”

Since that interview, Christie’s approval rating has improved, as measured by Quinnipiac.

Christie may have a down-ballot benefit for the GOP this year in the Garden State.

“Our polling shows voters who like him are much more likely to vote Republican, even in Democratic districts,” said political scientist David Redlawsk, the director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers. “Republican candidates are happy to be seen with him. Jon Runyan (running against Democrat Rep. John Adler in New Jersey’s Third congressional district) is featuring him at a fundraiser next week, and Rep. Scott Garrett (the Republican who represents the state’s Fifth district) has been happy to be seen with him at a county fair. In general they seem to embrace him”

More unpalatable state budget choices will be needed next year, Redlawsk said. “There is much more to come, most likely, since a massive structural deficit remains, including huge pension obligations that remain unfunded.”
So Christie’s New Jersey approval numbers “may get worse, but perhaps not since voters are sort of positive towards the guy himself and already expect the worst.”

Redlawsk added it’s “simply too early to know” whether Christie is viable as a national candidate. “The next year is likely to be more difficult, and how he handles it will determine his long-term future.”

For now, Christie is important nationally, said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, primarily because he is “showing that Republicans are not goners in the Northeast if they govern from a common sense, conservative perspective.”