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Opinion: Christie will bridge obstacles on his way to presidential nomination

I would not be surprised if Gov. Christie is the 2016 Republican presidential nominee.

From an economic perspective, Christie has governed New Jersey as a conservative, cutting the earned income tax credit for the poor and vetoing the minimum-wage increase while providing tax cuts for the wealthy and supporting subsidies for dubious projects in Atlantic City and the Meadowlands. From a social perspective, he vetoed the gay marriage bill, failed to support bipartisan legislation to improve gun safety and continued to oppose most abortions.

I suspect that we will see a more conservative Chris Christie as he runs for the presidency. He will, no doubt, move to the right on gun control and immigration reform. On both of these issues, I believe he will be able to thread the needle in a manner that will allow him to appeal to most moderate Republicans and a share of more conservative Republicans.

Let’s focus here on what I think will be the two biggest obstacles Christie will face as he seeks the Republican nomination for president. They will not be the accusations raised in “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” a new book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann on the 2012 election. The book includes information about the governor’s time as a lobbyist, his spending habits as U.S. attorney, his steering of contracts to political allies and the treatment his brother received as part of a settlement by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Most of these red flags had been raised before.

The public has been battered by political scandals. I don’t see it getting overly exercised over a politician with a taste for the Four Seasons instead of the Courtyard by Marriott or for one who directs discretionary professional contracts to a friend rather than someone he doesn’t know.

There are two attacks, however, to which Gov. Christie is vulnerable: being in cahoots with the Democratic political boss of South Jersey, George Norcross III, and having allowed inequality to soar to record levels during his tenure.

Make no mistake about it: The long-time political history of corruption and bossism in New Jersey is Chris Christie’s Achilles’ heel, and it will be lanced by his political opponents. He will be portrayed as the latest incarnation of a long list of self-dealing politicians that New Jersey has spawned. Although it appears that Mr. Christie is honest, his willingness to make deals with a power broker will make it relatively easy for his opponents to cast him in a negative light.

Nowadays, everyone realizes that the governor is adept at turning around criticism of his insulting rhetoric and name-calling by citing it as further evidence of his unvarnished tell-it-like-it-is approach. His opponents will attack his fitness for the presidency by portraying him as a “Joisey”-style deal maker who treats others with disdain.

Chris Christie’s opponents will explain that the governor cut a back-room grand deal with Norcross: Norcross and his cronies – Steve Adubato Sr. and Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. – agreed to deliver the votes they controlled in the Legislature to support a pension bill that Gov. Christie wanted that was opposed by public employee unions, and they agreed not to coalesce around a candidate who would run against him in his re-election bid (listen to what Barbara Buono, the defeated Democratic candidate, said on election night).

In turn, Christie did not support a strong Republican candidate against Democrat Cory Booker in his run for the U.S. Senate, moved up the election for the Senate to preclude any coattails for the Republican senatorial candidate and to reduce Democratic turnout prompted by Booker's candidacy, and supported the dramatic expansion of Rowan University in South Jersey. By helping to produce a huge plurality for Christie, the deck has been cleared for Norcross’ close political ally, Senate President Steve Sweeney, to be New Jersey’s next governor. If all that works according to the grand scheme, Norcross will control New Jersey’s next governor and have access to the president if Christie wins.

Gov. Christie’s opponents will make it clear that he will be out of his element in Washington, D.C., as there is no George Norcross around to slick the rails and make grand deals. They will point out that things don’t work like that except in “Joisey.”

Likewise, his opponents will make mincemeat of his record on the economy by repeating over and over again that one-quarter of New Jerseyans — 2.1 million people — are living in poverty, the highest number in 50 years. His opponents will point out that New Jersey is a microcosm of what is wrong with America. It is a state with many innovative high-technology firms. It is a state that is seeing record corporate profits and producing more and more millionaires. But it is also a state where income inequality is rising dramatically and unemployment remains much higher than for its Northeast neighbors.

It will be a very difficult campaign, made more difficult by the George Washington Bridge lane-closure fiasco, which appears to be another example of Joisey-style politics. However, if anyone can do it, it is Chris Christie.