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Is Christie the Anti-Perry or the Anti-Romney?

It’s hard to know whether Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is really reconsidering making a late entry into the presidential race — or whether it’s wishful thinking on the part of Republicans who are dissatisfied with their current choices.

But if Mr. Christie were to run, where would he fit in? Would he be more of a threat to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, or instead to Mitt Romney?

Recently, Mr. Christie’s name has more often been floated in the context of dissatisfaction with Mr. Perry. Of course, there is already an alternative to Mr. Perry — Mr. Romney — and the fact that Republican insiders are still agitating for a new candidate rather than rallying around Mr. Romney is an indictment of his candidacy as well.

As I’ve written, Mr. Christie’s ideology is somewhat hard to pin down. On the one hand, he has his share of support from the conservative wing of the Republican Party. His fans include Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and at various points in the past, he’s won informal surveys at Tea Party gatherings and among conservative bloggers.

On the other hand, Mr. Christie is the governor of a liberal-to-moderate state, and he ran to the left of his main opponent, Steven M. Lonegan, in the Republican primary for governor in 2009.

The ideology of governors can sometimes be hard to measure because they do not take roll call votes, as members of Congress do. But a method devised by Adam Bonica, a political scientist at Stanford, would imply that Mr. Christie was quite moderate based on the political orientation of his campaign contributors. Mr. Christie’s ideological score, according to Mr. Bonica’s method, is similar to Mr. Romney’s when he was governor of Massachusetts, or Charlie Crist’s while he was governor of Florida, although somewhat to the right of Christie Whitman’s when she was governor of New Jersey.

Here’s another, less abstract way to think about the question. What positions has Mr. Christie taken that could potentially give him problems with the conservative base — as Mr. Romney’s stance on health care and Mr. Perry’s on immigration have?

There are actually quite a few of these:

Gun Control. New Jersey, a mostly suburban state, tends to take a moderate position on gun control, and Mr. Christie has in the past as well. In 2009, Mr. Christie’s campaign rebutted a claim by his Democratic opponent, Jon Corzine, that he stood with the N.R.A. by pointing out that Mr. Christie supported the assault weapons ban and opposed concealed carry laws. A statement on Mr. Christie’s campaign Web site in 2009 said that he supported New Jersey’s existing gun control laws, which are fairly strict.

The Environment and Global Warming. During the 2009 campaign, Mr. Christie sometimes critiqued Governor Corzine’s performance on the environment from the left, and he won the endorsement of the New Jersey Environmental Foundation, the first statewide Republican candidate to do so in 30 years.

More recently, however, Mr. Christie withdrew New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program. But while so doing, he stated explicitly that global warming was real and manmade and endorsed the views of the consensus of climate scientists. Mr. Christie has also opposed plans to drill for oil off of New Jersey’s coast.

Immigration. In 2008, Mr. Christie, then a United States attorney, stated that “being in this country without proper documentation is not a crime.” The statement drew a harsh critique from CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who called for Mr. Christie’s resignation, and is a good bet to make a reappearance in one of his opponent’s campaign commercials should Mr. Christie enter the race.

Mr. Christie has received an F from NumbersUSA, an organization that favors greater restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration.

Social Issues. Mr. Christie is an opponent of both abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but his campaign Web site in 2009 stated that he had “no issue with same-sex couples sharing contractual rights,” an apparent reference to New Jersey’s existing civil unions law.

In 2010, Mr. Christie broke with other prominent Republicans by accusing his party of “overreacting” to the proposed construction of an Islamic mosque and cultural center near the ground zero site, although he also criticized President Obama’s position on the issue.

‘Post-Partisan’ Branding. Although in some ways Mr. Christie’s outspoken, no-holds-barred style might seem like an antidote to Mr. Obama, whom Mr. Christie has criticized for weak leadership, there have also been times when Mr. Christie’s messaging has resembled that of the president.

One noteworthy example is a video that Mr. Christie’s campaign released in the closing days of the 2009 campaign. It featured extended and positively framed clips of Mr. Obama, who was more popular then, and interspersed images of supporters of Mr. Christie and Mr. Obama, implying that Mr. Christie would be in the legacy of Mr. Obama’s mandate for “change.”


There are, of course, other issues on which Mr. Christie is on much firmer conservative ground, particularly in the realm of fiscal policy. Many conservatives applauded Mr. Christie’s signing of a bill that secured significant rollbacks in pensions and benefits for state employees, and reduced collective bargaining rights. Mr. Christie has been an outspoken critic of teachers’ unions. He has spoken of the need for significant reforms to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And he has been critical of Mr. Obama’s health care bill, although he annoyed some conservatives by declining to have New Jersey join other states in challenging the law.

The point is not necessarily that Mr. Christie is a centrist, but that he is a pragmatic Republican whose record and rhetoric reflect his job of having to win election, and govern, in a relatively blue state. Moreover, he has generally avoided speaking of the issues of the day in harshly partisan terms, or endorsing candidates strongly associated with the Tea Party.

Over all, his record probably reads as being closer to that of Mr. Romney than Mr. Perry. And Mr. Christie could threaten Mr. Romney in another way: by performing strongly in the Northeast, possibly including New Hampshire, a part of the country where Mr. Romney would otherwise hope to rack up momentum and delegates.

But Mr. Christie also has one important difference — and potential advantage — against Mr. Romney. He does not have a reputation, perhaps because he has not been in public office for very long, of being a flip-flopper. Instead, he has often received praise for holding his ground and speaking his mind.

Arguably, the problem with Mr. Romney’s campaign is not that he is insufficiently conservative — but rather that conservative Republicans do not trust him and are not sure where he ultimately stands. Mr. Romney ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994 as a moderate alternative to Ted Kennedy, and he governed the state as a relatively moderate Republican, but then ran to the right of Rudolph W. Giuliani and John McCain in the 2008 campaign. This year, he has run more to the left of the Republican field, although he has hesitated to draw explicit policy contrasts other than on Social Security.

One way to view the 2012 campaign is as an effort by the Republican Party to identify a viable, electable alternative to Mr. Romney. With other candidates, like Mr. Perry, potentially failing on the electability front, it is easy to see Mr. Christie’s appeal. The fact that Mr. Christie’s ideology is somewhat amorphous — without, like Mr. Romney’s, seeming slippery — is a potential sign of strength, an indication that he may have the persuasive abilities to rally the party behind him, while also appealing to general election voters.

Under this premise, Republicans would get their contest between Mr. Romney and Mr. Christie, with Mr. Perry and the other conservatives reduced to competing for a minority of delegates in especially conservative states like Iowa and parts of the Deep South.

The other view is that the campaign has not been about Mr. Romney per se, but instead is simply a struggle between moderates and conservatives. If the median primary Republican voter wants a “movement conservative” as their nominee, then Mr. Christie may not pass that test because of his stances on issues like immigration and climate change.

Mr. Romney could still win under this view if several candidates split the conservative vote and he has the moderate vote to himself. But the entry of Mr. Christie would complicate his equation and lower his odds, while posing less threat to Mr. Perry’s campaign.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.