New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reminded the media and conservative activists that compromise doesn’t mean giving the store away. In the months leading up to the election Christie made clear that, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he believed illegal immigrants brought here as kids through no fault of their own and residing in his state should get in-state tuition. Democrats took that as carte blanche and drafted a bill in the state legislature to also give illegal immigrants state aid for college. Christie said no, a fight ensued, local media actually took Christie’s side and in-state tuition with no state aid for these college students got passed.

Here is what he said:

Why draw the line at aid? His staff will say that it is simply a matter of limited resources and not wanting to draw aid-seekers from other states. In a statement, his staff made the case: “This move reiterates his [Christie’s] belief that New Jersey can – and should – provide tuition equality, while also protecting taxpayers from measures that are fiscally imprudent. Expansions to funding programs must always be carefully calibrated, and thoughtfully balanced against the reality of limited revenues, competing priorities, and sound planning for the needs of all citizens.”  (It’s a lot harder to game the residency rules, so the in-state tuition provision really is for the benefit of those longtime residents of the Garden State).

Isn’t this all a matter of degree? Yup. That is why they call it compromise.

That is what makes Christie appealing to independents, Democrats and pragmatic Republicans. It is what infuriates some on the far right. Christie is racking up win after win in New Jersey and will run on that record in any presidential race with the promise to  general-election voters that he’ll get these same things done (immigration reform, entitlement reform, etc.) on the national level. He’s betting enough voters in the primary want that as well and/or can spot an electoral winner when they see one. He’s never going to get a majority of the voters in the primary that a Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) or Rick Santorum would; Mitt Romney didn’t get the majority of the right-wing vote until the nomination was all but locked up. Christie will, like Romney, get some of them plus a larger share of more moderate Republicans. The difference is that Christie has a much better case to the general electorate and therefore might expand the GOP base and win back the presidency.

That is the thinking, at any rate. What Christie will need to do in a GOP primary (and what he doesn’t need to do in New Jersey) is explain why what he does is rooted in conservative values. (In the case of Dream Act reform, it is conservative not to hold people responsible for others’ infractions.) He will have to persuade voters that it is not compromise for compromise’s sake but for center-right ends. Is he conservative enough for the GOP primary electorate? We’ll find out.