When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took the podium for his Jan. 8 State of the State address, Trenton’s Democratic legislature received him less as the pugnacious leader of the opposition than as its own conquering hero. Christie was welcomed with a standing ovation, and his speech was staccatoed by thunderous applause. So what if many of those Democrats privately refer to Christie in terms not fit to print? As Christie might say, Don’t be stupid: At this moment, there’s virtually no challenging the man. Christie’s textbook performance after Hurricane Sandy devastated his state in October pushed his approval ratings above 70% and sent his opponents scurrying for cover. Local TV commentators wonder if his upcoming 2013 re-*election fight might be more coronation than campaign. In short, Christie may now be America’s most popular politician. And at a moment when Republicans in Washington look ham-fisted, inflexible and incapable of governing, Christie is poised to show a demoralized post–Mitt Romney GOP how to regain its majority status.
The past three months have transformed a man who was already on virtually everyone’s short list for 2016 into something else entirely. In mid-October, Christie was bogged down in tedious wrangling with the state assembly and reading about the various Democrats eager to steal his job. Then came Sandy. Arriving with ghoulish timing just before Halloween, it was the worst storm to hit New Jersey in a century. Almost 350,000 homes were destroyed, 116,000 people were evacuated or displaced, and nearly 7 million people lost power. Huge swaths of the Jersey Shore, where tourism is an indispensable part of the economy, were devastated. The television airwaves were filled with sobbing, homeless families.