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Will Christie's moment last?

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN
updated 11:23 AM EST, Thu November 7, 2013
U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky have been on Time's cover. So has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky have been on Time's cover. So has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
  • There's no doubt Christie is mulling a run for president
  • The big question will be whether he can get conservatives to support him
  • Sen. Marco Rubio's prominent profile has led to complications for the potential 2016 contender

Washington (CNN) -- The path to the White House is paved with former frontrunners -- or maybe call them buzzleaders, since we're three years away from 2016 and nobody is officially running for president yet.

Time magazine has put three different GOP lawmakers on its cover. First it was Marco Rubio. Then it was Rand Paul. Now it is Chris Christie.

Don't forget to sprinkle that seasoning over all the sugary buzz surrounding Christie, who was emphatically reelected as New Jersey governor this week.

The foreshadowing was evident as he sailed to victory and a second term. There's no doubt Christie is mulling a run for president.

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Chris Christie in the national spotlight

"I know that if we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey, then maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now and see how it's done," he said during his victory speech, suggesting he had found the right mix to work together with Democrats and rise above partisan rancor.

He was even more pointed with CNN's Jake Tapper when he suggested that Republicans have veered away from a winning path and onto an ideological one.

Where does Christie go next?

"I think that the party's got to focus on winning again," Christie said from his campaign bus Tuesday, sending a clear message to conservative idealists and the tea party. "You know, sometimes, I feel like our party cares more about winning the argument than they care about winning elections. And if you don't win elections, you can't govern. And if you can't govern, you can't change the direction of a state, like we have done in New Jersey."

The big question, assuming he does run for president, will be whether he can get conservatives he doesn't see eye-to-eye with to support him in order to get to a general election.

The Christie narrative goes like this: The dynamic New Jersey Republican has flourished as a red governor in a blue state. He's defied unions and enacted conservative policies without doing something too drastic, the way Mitt Romney did with health insurance reform. He's shown a willingness to work with Democrats. He showed leadership after Superstorm Sandy.

There's no doubt about it: Chris Christie won a huge victory Tuesday. And the way the media works these days, a big win for a governor like Christie makes him the odds-on favorite to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016, three years from now.

Until he isn't. Wait for it. Or just ask Rubio about working across party lines in Washington. Rand Paul isn't much known for working with Democrats, but his buzz has faded lately as he's dealt with a plagiarism scandal. And he has competed with Sen. Ted Cruz for attention with the most conservative bulwarks of the party.

When moderates fight back: GOP civil war could be brutal in 2014 elections

Christie's relationship with social conservatives, a key GOP constituency, could be frustrated. He laid down his sword, for instance, when it became clear that courts would allow same-sex marriage in California.

But conservatives in Iowa aren't ready to reject him simply because he lost the battle over same-sex marriage.

"He accepted, I'll say it, the position of gay marriage existing in New Jersey," said Rep. Steve King, a Republican from the key state of Iowa. He said economic issues will be more important.

"We've had to make accommodations for that in Iowa. We have some experience with that. But he didn't endorse gay marriage. And the tea party themselves, I've been in many discussions with them and tried to argue to the contrary, they say we want to stay with the economic and the constitutional issues. Not the social agenda."

And don't forget: Romney, the Republicans' 2012 presidential nominee, was governor of the first state to allow same-sex marriage when courts there OK'd the practice back in 2004.

Christie has got the cover of Time this week. Back in February, it was Rubio pictured confidently on the cover of that publication with the bold headline, "The Republican Savior: How Marco Rubio became the new voice of the GOP."

Back then -- just this past February -- Rubio was the young senator with tea party credentials and a willingness to work across the aisle.

The Rubio narrative is just as compelling as Christie's. The son of Cuban immigrants came to Washington on a tea party wave and staked his career on a bold and politically courageous effort to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. He sought to heal a perceived rift between Republicans and Latinos and bring millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.

It was a tortured process, but the Senate did, four months after Rubio was featured on the Time cover, pass 68-32 the immigration bill he helped write. It took mostly Democratic votes to do it, however. And Rubio's tea party cred was hurt.

Election Night 2013: Christie wins big, Virginia provides drama

Now that bill on which Rubio spent so much political capital is, as he told CNN's Dana Bash on Wednesday, "stuck."

And Rubio is the first to admit he has paid a political price with Republicans for working with Democrats and supporting a pathway to citizenship.

"I was in favor of immigration reform. It had nothing to do with politics of it, although it may have some political implications. It was because it was the right thing to do for our country."

The more conservative House of Representatives won't touch Rubio's bipartisan bill, which has put him in the tough position of potentially having to support something less expansive in order to get anything done.

"What comprehensive bill on anything is going to get passed around here right now?" he asked. "We can't even get a farm bill passed."

Farm bills, FYI, are normally bipartisan and easily ratified. But not this year, with a stubborn Congress and a divisive president.

"People think Washington is gross," he said of the current atmosphere.

Later, Rubio told Bash he doesn't yet know of any senators running for president (meaning him), but he hopes his experience in Washington won't be a permanent liability.

"You can work in Washington without being of Washington," he said. "Luckily, I haven't been here long enough to believe that what goes on here is normal."

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