The announcement that Chris Christie will be the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention later this month in Tampa, Florida is the latest step in a meteoric political rise for the New Jersey governor and is sure to stoke speculation about his own future on the national stage.
"I learned a long time ago to take each cycle one at a time," said Bill Palatucci, a close adviser to Christie and a Republican National Comitteeman from New Jersey. "This is a great honor for the Governor and something that all New Jerseyans can take great pride in. For what the future holds, no one knows."
No one may know but that won't stop the speculation about where Christie, who remains the biggest -- and most recognizable -- star in the Republican party, will run next. Heck, even Christie himself has entertained the possibility of his next move, telling the Associated Press that he would "certainly think about it" if the GOP presidential nomination is open in four years time.
Before Christie can get that point -- whether in 2016 or 2020 -- he needs to decide on a second term in 2013. And, as those of you who are longtime readers of this blog know, we have long been skeptical of Christie's chances in that race -- given the state's Democratic lean and the possibility that Newark Mayor Cory Booker could run.
And yet, as of today, Christie looks about as strong as even his most optimistic advisers could hope. A July Quinnipiac University poll showed Christie's job approval at 54 percent while 39 percent disapproved, a remarkably high number given the overall national mood toward politicians and the aggressive agenda Christie has pursued in his first term.
Then there is the growing conventional wisdom that Booker is more interested in running for the Senate in 2014 -- if Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg retires -- than he is in challenging Christie. (Much of that perception comes from a viral video that the two men made poking fun at one another this spring. Thin gruel but still...)
Those close to Booker insist he has made no decision about what race to run for -- although it's clear that he and his political inner circle know that he needs to go statewide at some point in the not-too-distant future.
If Booker doesn't run, even Democrats acknowledge that their bench of potential Christie challengers is not the strongest -- although given the state's Democratic leanings it seems likely that the party will field someone credible.
There is some chatter in New Jersey political circles -- perhaps pushed by Democrats hoping against hope -- that Christie might, in fact, decide not to run again particularly if Romney loses this fall. The thinking goes that it would be a tough pivot for Christie to win a second term in 2013 and immediately begin laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential bid -- and that such an effort would be more easily built from outside of elected office than in it.
"He has often said that he would govern as if he were not seeking re-election so that his decisions would not be seen as political," said New Jersey-based Democratic consultant Brad Lawrence. "Whether one buys that line, it gives him the perfect out to not seek re-election and, in fact, enhance his brand, rather than pulling a Palin."
Regardless of what Christie does next, it's clear that those allied with him see his keynote speech to be a major testing ground for the tough talk messaging he has made famous/infamous since being elected in 2009.
"This is an opportunity to see if the country is ready for someone who speaks candidly about hard truths," said one New Jersey Republican granted anonymity to speak candidly.
The footsteps that Christie will clearly be trying to follow in are the likes of Ronald Reagan in 1964, Mario Cuomo in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2004 -- all three of whom used their opportunity as keynote speakers to catapult themselves into the political stratosphere.
Republicans who have worked closely with Christie are confident he can deliver. "Chris Christie has always lived up to the moment, he will again at the convention, and his place in our party's future is both needed and secured for a long time to come," predicted Nick Ayers, who ran the Republican Governors Association when Christie was elected in 2009.
The question is what future Christie wants. What's clear is that a presidential bid seems likely and he can take a major step to securing his place in the top tier of that future race with a star turn as the GOP's keynote speaker.