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New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 GOP Presidential Contender Chris Christie, (Courtesy of the Associated Press)

New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 GOP Presidential Contender Chris Christie, (Courtesy of the Associated Press)

He’s a popular Governor, but could New Jersey Governor Chris Christie be what the Republican Party needs three years from now as it heads into another Presidential campaign? Does he have what it takes to lead his party from the political wilderness and win?

The truth of politics is it’s hard to speculate whether Governor Christie will run. Does he want the nomination? There’s little question of that. Much like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he is poising himself for that run in ways that would make it shocking if he doesn’t announce. Yet a lot can change on the way to the convention. After all, 6 years ago, Clinton was in a position to take it all and lead her party into the general election as the first woman to take the nomination for a major political party. That was until Illinois Senator Barack Obama swept past her in stunning triumph.

Presidential nomination battles are littered with the bodies of candidates who wanted to run, who poised themselves to run, and then never stood a chance. Some, like Michigan Governor George Romney barely got out of the gate before his campaign lay crumbled on the road to the White House. Others, like former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, were put out of their misery early as they slipped and fell from grace, while countless others never even got the chance to announce, knowing that, for one reason or another, that path had been blocked for them, refusing to put themselves and their families through it in that knowledge.

There any number of ways a campaign can die a quick death before it even gets started. Considering the hype around Christie after his landslide re-election win on Tuesday night, the Governor needs to be wary of all of them if he has any serious intentions of trying to garner the GOP nomination in 2016. Republican cannibalization, like what was seen in the 2012 primary, when candidates like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hand delivered President Obama everything he needed to take on former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, trying desperately to pry the nomination from his hands, is a particularly important lesson to remember. Why? Because, for as difficult as the general election may be, the GOP primary is going to be a dark and bloodied one as it becomes a fight not just to win the nomination but to reshape and remold the party.

With the Tea Party already trying to pick a  favorite son with freshman Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul casting long shadows over the race,  their “Establishment Republican” opponents like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan are likely to put up a  no holds barred fight. Throw in a few wildcard candidates hoping to slide up the middle into an already  heavy laden field, and it creates  the potential of a long drawn-out primary battle, even longer than 2012, with hard feelings and animosity between GOP factions abounding like they did in the 1964 Primary battle between Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. So hungry to win, there is a real chance that the Republicans could eat their own before they even get past the convention, and that’s what the Democratic Party is hoping for.

This represents one of the biggest threats that Christie faces if he is preparing for a run in 2016. Why? Because it means that his opponents are going to try and define him, especially if it seems  he has the momentum on his side, before he has a chance to define himself outside of New Jersey.

Already reviled by some in his own party, especially within some of the Tea Party wings, for refusing to snub the President last year when Superstorm Sandy hammered the New Jersey shore just before the election, they are going to try to destroy Christie’s candidacy before he even declares it. Likewise the Democratic Party is going to try to define him, especially in key battleground states, as someone to be feared as a reactionary force that is nowhere near moderate. Their goal to mold him into the image of a political boogeyman will be to try and make him too conservative for moderates and independents, figuring if they can weaken him from the center the Tea Party will weaken him to the right, slowly drying up any base of support or foundation for victory that he may need.

Granted, to a certain extent, he is a bit of a known brand, but that known brand doesn’t necessarily translate to much more than name recognition to those outside of his state or to close observers of politics. Christie needs to be in front of that, out defining himself and who he is beyond the borders of New Jersey, the sooner the better. Otherwise he is handing out a blank check to turn that name recognition into a political liability for himself as he is made out to be too liberal for the conservatives and too conservative for the liberals and something different altogether for the independents.

One of Governor Christie’s greatest strengths was that he was able to set the agenda in New Jersey, he was able to create his own brand and define himself to voters. Image in politics is so much of who a candidate is, and a candidate who is able to, like Christie, create and mold their own image is in a better place than their opponents. Ask Illinois Senator Barack Obama who, in 2008, was created into exactly who he needed to be, propelled from unknown first term Senator to President despite the obstacles in front of him. The difference of course was that Senator Obama largely flew under the radar until he was ready to take on that national profile. Governor Christie isn’t afforded that same luxury.

The 2014 midterms perhaps offer him the best chance to do that. He needs to pick out key states, and key races to jump into, campaigning for local Republican candidates. He needs to use these opportunities to define his own brand in places he will need to win in the primary and the general while building a favor bank with the party and the candidates within those states. This not only allows him to bring his own brand of retail politics to people who might know who he is but little more about him than that, turning that celebrity status into votes while introducing himself to the electorate as more than a face on the news or a name in a news story. Yes it is a careful balance he needs to keep so that he doesn’t run the risk of making it all about him, but if he is capable of doing that while expanding his profile the dividends will be immeasurable a year down the road.

Basically what this means is that he needs to aim his 2014 midterm strategy as if it were a test run for a 2016 Presidential race, except taking on the issues in those districts and those states. After all, if he is able to do and it helps to propel his own party’s candidates forward it creates the idea of the Christie Coattails and a rising tide for his campaign while piecing together the initial framework of the coalition he needs to take the Republican nomination and potentially the general election.

Is this all that Governor Christie needs to do or to worry about? Absolutely not, but it’s a start and right now is the time to start, looking out for the pitfalls, building the strategy, and piecing together the foundation for a run if he is really serious about it. But then more on all of that later.