Everyone who watches politics can appreciate the rhetorical skills of New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie. Like no one else, he can skewer teachers unions, fence with the media, chide the president on lack of fiscal leadership and extol the need for brave politicians who will tackle entitlement reform. He is arguably the most politically talented Republican in the country. But underappreciated are his smarts when it comes to policy.

Take his decision to send the issue of gay marriage to the voters. He can read the polls like anyone else. They show in the blue state strong support for gay marriage, so if that’s what the people want, what are state Republicans going to complain about? And, since he is personally opposed to gay marriage (and would lose street cred with elements of the GOP base), he satisfied Republicans by vetoing the legislation, giving conservatives the chance to make their case with the people of New Jersey.

As he said in a CNN interview, “And if the people in New Jersey, as some of the same-sex marriage advocates suggest the polls indicate, are in favor of it, then my position would not be the winning position, but I’m willing to take that risk because I trust the people of the state.”

Or, thinking about it from the other direction, if the people of New Jersey vote for gay marriage, Christie will have ensured political consensus and obviated conservatives’ concerns about gay marriage being ”imposed” on the citizenry. Many who think that opposition to gay marriage is becoming an unsustainable position but who respect the views of social conservatives would look at Christie’s maneuver and conclude: Ah, he’s figured out how to get the party from here (stuck on the side of an argument that’s largely been lost) to there (let gay marriage come into law by popular acclamation that reflects the changed views of Americans).

That bit of fancy political footwork, however, pales in comparison to his dual-pronged crime initiative. On one hand, the former U.S. attorney is rolling out a public safety measure. Last month, he announced his plan to amend the state constitution “to give state judges the authority to keep suspects who are considered a danger to the community in jail while awaiting trial on new charges. The governor’s proposed constitutional amendment would put New Jersey’s bail laws in line with the federal system. The proposal requires voter approval because the state constitution now specifies a bail option for all suspects.” The notion that New Jersey judges should be given power to keep dangerous criminals, who could among other things kill or intimidate witnesses, not surprisingly is a popular idea.

But Christie also tied that law and order measure with an innovative, tough-love approach to non-violent drug crime:

The proposed bill, which has not yet been introduced, will seek increased identification of eligible participants, court-ordered clinical assessments to determine their suitability for the program, and mandatory participation for those the court rules are suitable.

For their part, courts will have to favorably consider the patient’s cooperation when handing down a sentence . . . . Christie said the legislation “needs to be bipartisan” to ward off charges that it is soft on crime . . . .

While a drug court program is currently only one option for those arrested for certain nonviolent drug offenses, it would be mandatory under Christie’s proposal.

Although the governor said he didn’t expect the program to be operating for about a year after signing legislation, he said the 1,000 to 1,500 eligible inmates should have the option of entering immediately.

Christie said the Department of Corrections estimates 7,000 people a year will qualify for the expanded program.

Again, he garnered bipartisan praise. He is going to be more humane (“Budgets come and go, taxes go up and down; but saving lives, that lasts forever”) and save money? (Under Christie’s plan the cost per offender is $11,000; the current cost is $39,000 per offender.) No wonder pols on both sides of the aisle are enthusiastic.

This is plainly a Republican who thinks creatively about public policy, adhering to conservative ideas (on everything from entitlement reform to opposition to tax hikes to bail reform) while dispelling the image that Republicans are backward-looking or uncaring. If he does wind up as the vice president on the GOP presidential ticket, he’ll be not just a help in campaigning but also in formulating and getting a center-right agenda through the legislature. You can understand why a lot of people wanted him to run for the top of the ticket.