February 4

At present Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seem to have diametrically opposite challenges. After a year of bolting from generous immigration reform to the shutdown, Rubio has unnerved supporters who now question whether he has the internal toughness and gravitas for a presidential race. Yet moneymen see a candidate on paper (Hispanic, money-raiser) who sounds like he could be the answer to the party’s prayers.

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2011 file photo, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at the Newseum in Washington. It was Mitt Romney’s show. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie rocked the house. Rubio was the talk of the town. And Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s rising-star status was blinding as he accepted the party’s vice presidential nomination. The Republican Party’s next generation of leaders were in deep supply at the GOP’s national convention as they positioned for future national roles and, perhaps, even their own shot at the White House in four or eight years. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) (Haraz N. Ghanbari/Associated Press)

Christie, meanwhile, is dead in the water, if you listen to some pundits. He pummels back, but every punch and defiant retort is transformed into “evidence” of his aggression.

On a radio show Monday night, he stated definitively that “the most important issue and the most important issue is did I know anything about the plan to close these lanes? Did I authorize it? Did I know about it? Did I approve it? Did I have any knowledge of it beforehand? And the answer is still the same: It’s unequivocally no. And in fact, no one has ever accused me of that and that’s the thing that I think people in New Jersey care about the most.”

He says he refuses to be benched by the scandal: “I don’t need a few months off to deal with this, because they know the truth. They know me. They just reelected me resoundingly. And they know I’m going to do this job. And that’s it. And anybody who tries to distract me from doing this job is going to be disappointed because I won’t be distracted.”

Outside New Jersey this may be too “hot, ” but in his state this brashness may endear him to voters. (As Christie says, what other people calling “yelling” Jerseyans call a conversation.) His rhetorical pyrotechnics allow him to command attention. That is now a two-edged sword — reviving him at home but giving donors and party insiders the shakes. There is no “letting it blow over” with Christie.

In other ways, the Rubio/Christie contrast is apparent. It is the matinee idol young man against the guy-from-the-neighborhood who’s on a diet (like a lot of Americans). Rubio hasn’t gotten in anyone’s face; Christie does it every day. Rubio is known for speeches and a legislative effort that hit a wall; Christie is the tough executive who has accomplishments — but opponents as well. Christie likes to fence and heckle the media; Rubio likes to give set speeches. Rubio reminds a few too many people of President Obama (untested, all talk); the press would have us believe Christie is the reincarnation of Richard Nixon. Too light vs. too tough, it seems.

There is a theory that the more peril Christie is in, the more the base will warm to him, while Rubio suffers the cold shoulder he’s gotten since the immigration fight. Christie may eventually get a clean bill of health from a Democratic investigation and get back to his reform agenda; Rubio is trapped in a do-nothing Senate. Rubio needs to get into the limelight; Christie could use time away from it.

Christie however, not unlike Bill Clinton, is interesting — riveting sometimes — for his sheer political theatricality and rhetorical skill. He’s fun for the media and public to watch. He will continue to hold the public’s attention and the media’s interest, for better or worse. Christie can run for president and keep his job. However, The Hill reminds us, “Florida law does not allow Rubio to run simultaneously for the Senate and the White House in 2016, when his seat in the Senate is up.” If he rolls the dice and loses, he’s out of a job.

In some ways, this year and next will test whether they can compensate for their weaknesses (everyone has them) and regain the affection of supporters that buoyed them before the roof collapsed (Rubio on immigration, Christie on the bridge scandal). Are their problems more acute than those of author of the shutdown effort Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or isolationist gadfly Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)? Arguably not. But a cautious GOP  base may go for less star power and controversy when 2016 rolls around.

Given how quickly voters forget and change their impressions, I wouldn’t count any of them out.