As voters go to the polls in New Jersey today, incumbent Gov. Chris Christie is strongly favored to defeat his opponent, Democrat Barbara Buono. Christie’s campaign has prepared the way for a possible presidential bid in 2016 and a challenge to the conservative wing of the Republican Party:

Christie’s gubernatorial reelection campaign is about much more than winning a second term to enhance his power in New Jersey. He and his advisers hope that the outcome will send a message to a divided Republican Party about how it can win in places where its presidential candidates have been losing.

The road test was for a possible campaign for president in 2016.

In one way, Christie is taking a page from the playbook of former president George W. Bush, who used his 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign in Texas to make himself the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000. Like Bush, Christie is trying to win by the biggest possible margin and show that, despite his conservative positions, he can attract support from constituencies long tied to the Democrats.

But the Republican Party that will pick its next presidential nominee in three years is far different from the one that nominated Bush. Christie should emerge from Tuesday’s election as a top-tier candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, but also as one fully stamped as a favorite of the establishment wing who has not been afraid to criticize hard-liners on the right.

“I said this to the RNC last summer,” Christie said aboard his bus later that day, referring to the Republican National Committee. “I’m in this to win, because if you don’t win, you can’t govern. If you can’t govern, you can’t move the country, the state, the city — whatever you’re running for — in the direction it needs to be moved in. I think we’ve had too many people [in the Republican Party] who’ve become less interested in winning an election and more interested in winning an argument.”

Dan Balz

Christie is at the top of Chris Cillizza’s ranking of Republicans most likely to win their party’s next nomination for president. He is followed by Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker, who are all known for holding more conservative views than the New Jersey governor. Yet Cillizza adds that in contrast to Democratic favorite and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, none of the Republicans have withstood the intense public scrutiny that is part of a national campaign:

Looking more broadly at the potential Republican field, the only two candidates who have gone through any sort of very serious vetting are former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Bush, by dint of his last name and his three runs for governor of Florida, is (mostly) a known commodity. Ditto Ryan, thanks to his vetting and ultimate selection by Romney as the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee. But Ryan doesn’t seem likely to run, and Bush is a total unknown when it comes to his potential interest.

If both men take a pass, the candidates with the best chance of winding up as the Republican presidential nominee will be — from a vetting perspective — relative unknowns. That fact — especially if Clinton does decide to run — should scare Republican strategists who covet the White House in 2016.

Chris Cillizza

In their new book “Double Down,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann describe a number of controversies in Christie’s past that ultimately discouraged Mitt Romney’s advisers from choosing him as a running mate last year.

Recent polls suggest that Christie could defeat Buono by 20 percentage points or more, and other Republican candidates are hoping voters’ enthusiasm for Christie will help their chances as well.