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National Politics|By Amy Walter, June 5, 2013

Dear national party leaders and pundits: Chris Christie doesn’t care what you think of him.

Chris Christie’s first priority is to Chris Christie. Not to the national party. Not to conservative leaders. Not to primary or caucus goers in early states.

It’s what makes him a solid favorite for re-election in New Jersey. But, it’s also what makes him a decided underdog in a 2016 GOP primary.

Since being aggressively pursued to run in the spring of 2012, Christie has racked up numerous “sins” against the party.

First, there was the New Jersey Governor’s keynote address at the GOP convention last summer. The speech was panned by many GOPers who thought Christie spent too little time promoting Mitt Romney and too much time talking about himself.

In late October, there was Christie’s rhetorical embrace of President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Despite any proof, there are plenty of conservatives who to this day believe that Christie’s words of praise for the president lost the election for Romney. Earlier this year, Christie publicly chastised those within the House GOP ranks for holding up federal aid for Sandy victims. Right before Memorial Day, Christie was once again walking the New Jersey shoreline with Obama by his side, giving the embattled president an opportunity to look bi-partisan.

He was one of a handful of GOP governors to accept federal Medicaid dollar under "Obamacare."

His most recent decision to hold a special election to replace the late Senator Frank Lautenberg in October, instead of November, only cements the perception among many GOPers that he’s more interested in self-preservation than party. On Thursday, Christie named state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa as the interim U.S. Senator. 

An October special election helps keep Christie’s Democratic opponent Barbara Buono – who is currently trailing him in the polls - from benefitting from an energized Democratic turn-out on Election Day. But, as National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar writes, the decision also gives “interested Republican [Senate] candidates little time to announce, organize a campaign, and raise the necessary money to take on a top-tier Democrat, likely Newark Mayor Cory Booker.” Chiesa will not be a candidate in the special election. And, potential candidates have little time to wait or dawdle. The filing deadline is June 10.

And, as my colleague Jennifer Duffy wrote earlier this week, “conflicting provisions in New Jersey state law about when an election to fill a vacancy will occur,” had many speculating about the possibility of Christie announcing a November 2014 special election. This would be a best-case scenario for the GOP as it would give their nominee a chance to build up name ID and a war-chest before a general election.

Yet, regardless of when the special election would have been held, Republicans would still be underdogs to win in this deep blue state. And, had Christie picked a November 2014 date, Democrats would have almost certainly filed a lawsuit challenging the date and dragging the process out even longer.

But, the fact that Christie didn’t even try to help give his party an edge in a rare open seat situation is what has plenty of Republicans grumbling.

To be sure, all of this is inside baseball. Christie is one of the most popular politicians in the country. A new NBC/WSJ poll found the New Jersey Governor with high favorable ratings and very low unfavorables. His popularity transcends party as well with "40 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of independents and 43 percent of Democrats seeing him in a positive light."

But, when it comes to winning the GOP nomination, the "inside game" is the only game that matters. Christie may be popular among a national swath of Republican voters, but the only GOP voters that matter in 2015 and early 2016 are those who vote in GOP primaries. And, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to assume that there will be plenty of conservatives who will be more than happy to "educate" Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina voters about the Governor's apostasy. Convincing Republican primary voters to support – again – a governor from the northeast was always going to be tough. Add to that these real or perceived slights to the party, and Christie starts with two strikes against him.

At its core, the Christie conundrum perfectly embodies the struggles of the 21st Century Republican party. Christie’s win in 2009 was hailed by Republicans as proof that they could win in blue states. But, many Republican conservatives don’t like/understand, that to keep the seat, Christie can’t act like a Republican partisan.

It’s also likely that Christie will get compared to other blue state Republican governors who have pursued a more aggressively partisan agenda. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker can boast of winning re-election in a state Obama carried, even as he promoted a conservative agenda. Conservatives will ask why they need to nominate a squishy blue stater when they can get behind a principled one from a state that they have a shot to actually carry in 2016. Walker, of course, has an all-GOP legislature which Christie doesn’t. But, nuances like that aren’t the kind of thing that matter to partisan audiences.

To his credit, Christie has always said he doesn’t give a darn about what those outside of New Jersey think of him. It’s now time to start believing him.