Right now, Christie is the only likely candidate capable of doing that. Last November, Quinnipiac asked Americans their impression of the GOP. By 23 points, it was negative. Then they asked whether potential Republican contenders would make a good president. For the most part, the candidate’s reputations roughly tracked their party’s. By margins of 12, 15, and 27 points, Americans said Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz would make bad presidents. When Quinnipiac asked about Christie, by contrast, the numbers flipped. By 18 points, Americans thought he’d be a good president—41 points better than margin of his party as a whole.
When you look at specific demographic groups, the numbers are even more striking. More than half of self-described moderates thought Christie would do a good job as president. None of the other three potential Republican candidates garnered more than a quarter. More than one in three African-Americans and one in three self-described liberals thought Christie would do a good job. For his Republican competitors, it was roughly one in 10.
Every single recent poll shows Christie roughly tied with Hillary Clinton and every other potential Republican contender trailing her by close to double digits. That includes Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who some pundits suggest could become the establishment/centrist candidate if Christie falters. In a CNN poll last December, Christie led Clinton by two points. Rubio trailed her by 19, Jeb Bush by 21. A McClatchy survey that same month found Clinton leading Christie by three points, Rubio by 10 and Bush by 12.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Although Rubio initially took a more pro-immigration stance than many in his party, he’s responded to right-wing attacks by repudiating his own bill. Jeb Bush has offered some mild criticisms of his party’s direction, but in the public mind, he’s a Bush and thus shares a political identity with the ex-president who turned so many against the GOP in the first place.
Only Christie has taken the risky, high-profile stances—from embracing Obama during Hurricane Sandy to blasting congressional Republicans for not providing sufficient hurricane relief to supporting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants to denouncing Islamophobia to abandoning a fight against gay marriage—that forge a reputation for genuine independence.
There are other potential Republican contenders who share some of Christie’s strengths. Like Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker can run as a tough, capable manager who isn’t from Washington. Like Christie, Rand Paul has defied his party on key issues—for instance, NSA surveillance—and may have somewhat greater appeal to the young. But of the potential candidates right now, only Christie can run as the bipartisan to Clinton’s partisan, the outsider to her insider, and the plain-speaking everyman to her scripted, poll-tested inauthenticity.