New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been getting an earful from Democrats lately.

New polling data released Thursday show why: Christie leads the prospective GOP presidential sweepstakes and stacks up best among his fellow Republicans against Democratic powerhouse and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Ever since Christie cruised to reelection last month in his deep blue state like no Republican in decades, Democrats have sought to play catch-up. Their hope is to tar the governor's image ahead of 2016 by casting him as a bully who isn't bashful about punishing those who cross him. For his part, Christie wants to be seen as something very different: A problem-solver who can work across party lines.

The result of Christie's strategy: He's wildly popular -- and not just in New Jersey. Two numbers tell the story: 48 percent and 16 percent.

A new CNN/ORC International poll shows Christie is easily the most competitive Republican against Clinton, who has not announced whether she will make another White House bid but is seen as the likely Democratic nominee, should she run.

Christie (48 percent) runs about even with Clinton (46 percent) among registered voters, putting him a tier above other potential GOP White House contenders. He runs even with Clinton among self-described moderates and holds a big lead among independents.

By comparison, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) trails Clinton by eight points despite high name recognition following his 2012 run for vice president. Meanwhile, rising conservative stars like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) trail Clinton by 18 and 13 percentage points, respectively. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) lags behind the Democrat by 21.

When stacked up against potential GOP competitors in a Fox News poll, there is more good news for Christie. He leads eight other Republicans with a 16 percent plurality among GOP respondents. In other words, Christie's not only shaping up as the most electable Republican right now; he's also scoring points among the party faithful.

Christie has not yet said whether he will run for president in 2016. But he could hardly ask for a more ideal launching pad if he does. In addition to winning a second term in a very Democratic state, Christie recently ascended to the position of chairman of the Republicans Governors Association. The job will enable him to travel the country and build deep inroads with donors and party power brokers.

Cognizant of the threat Christie presents to Clinton or whomever wins the Democratic nomination, Democratic strategists have begun to take on Christie with an intensity that was mostly absent during the effort to unseat him in New Jersey this year.

The emerging campaign to define the governor was apparent in a recent episode involving the closure of access lanes from Fort Lee, N.J., onto the George Washington Bridge into New York. Democrats argued Christie's allies were doling out punishment against the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie in his reelection bid. Christie denied deploying any such tactics.

It's not just Democrats who are expected to lead the charge against Christie as 2016 draws near. Conservatives unhappy with Christie's stance on immigration (he recently signed a bill to allow in-state college and university tuition for New Jersey high school graduates brought into the country illegally as children) and his warm embrace of President Obama after Superstorm Sandy, among other things, are expected to ramp up criticism, too.

All of which reinforces a reality of the GOP hierarchy right now: Christie is at the top of the heap, and opponents from both sides are going after him hard.

The big question for the next year is whether Christie's image fades under political pressure at a level he's never seen before in his career, or he keeps his footing in a fluid Republican pecking order. The answer to that question could determine who has the upper hand when the race for the GOP nomination begins more officially in 2015.


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