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Beware the undertow on the Jersey Shore

Governor Chris Christie's cosy relationship with Obama could turn and bite him in the Primaries.

Obama and Christie at their joint press conference on the Jersey Shore
Obama and Christie at their joint press conference on the Jersey Shore. Photograph: Getty Images

The Jersey Shore is a very important place for the people of New Jersey. This is where they come to play, to let their hair down. Many, maybe most New Jerseyans, even those who live on the other end of the state, have some sort of fond memories of the place; a beach house rented with friends after graduating high school, maybe; a day-trip to the beach or a waterfront funfair as a kid on a sunny day. This is why, when Hurricane Sandy punished the Shore late last year, it had such a psychological effect. If they could have fought the storm bare-fisted, New Jerseyans would do it. “It's a New Jersey thing,” they'd say.

This week, President Obama visited the Shore to see how it was doing post-Sandy; and while he was there he took the opportunity to hang out with New Jersey's larger-than-life Republican governor Chris Christie. It was quite the love-in. Christie, who before Sandy had been a fairly partisan critic of the administration, has been admirably unafraid to praise Obama's handling of the storm relief. Similarly, Christie's handling of Hurricane Sandy won him support among many moderates – and from the President – for his brash, no-nonsense approach. Famously, his abandonment of Presidential campaigning in general – and Romney by implication – on Fox and Friends which went viral after appearing on The Daily Show soon after the storm. But his cosy relationship with Obama, while it allows him to bask in Presidential stardust, may soon make things difficult for the ambitious governor.

There is no denying that Christie is a big character, brash and straight-talking and New Jersey through-and-through, very popular in his home state and well-known nationwide. New Jersey is a blue – Democrat – state, and, as the New York Times' Nate Silver observes, drifting leftward by the day; Obama won there last year by a margin of nearly 20 percent. But Christie's personal approval rating there is 69 per cent; an NBC News/Marist poll earlier this month projected him to win re-election against Democrat challenger Barbara Buono 60 per cent to 28 in November.

As things stand, along with Florida Senator Marco Rubio – protégée of Jeb Bush – Christie probably represents the greatest threat to the Democrats come the 2016 Presidential election. He is portrayed nationally as a moderate – and certainly is one next to Rubio, even though he has shown evidence in the past of being further to the right on issues like abortion and gay marriage than many seem to believe.

But as much as it looks good in times of storms and endears him to swing voters – and is even (god forbid in politics) the right way for a leader to behave – his bipartisan cosying-up to the President is a risky game for him to play. If he truly has his eye on the White House, Christie will soon face the unenviable task of having to sell himself to the Republican base in the primaries as a prospective Presidential pretender.

Primary elections, the elections within the party to choose the candidate, give an extraordinary amount of power to small, arbitrary places, meaningful often for reasons of historical oddity, like Iowa, for example, whose caucuses are obsessed-over purely because they get to go first and set the tone. In a lot of cases, the local GOP parties are dominated by hard-right Tea Party activists, which meant in the last election that some really strange candidates get their chance to shape the message.

The Republican primaries, like the Daily Mail's message boards, are where the nutters live. They are what really killed Mitt Romney's chances in 2012. A moderate at heart, a defecit hawk but not a bible-thumper, Romney had to tack so far and so suddenly to the right to fend off candidates like Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain on issues like abortion and immigration that by the time he got through to the convention all his policy positions were shot to hell – even before Obama had started campaigning. It is in these primaries that things are going to get tough for Christie, who was facing criticism from the hard-line Fox News Republicans for what they see as disloyalty even before he bromantically gifted Obama a teddy-bear in front of the nation's media on the New Jersey boardwalk.

The manoeuvrings for 2016 have already begun. That's what the Benghazi scandal is really: the first scrapings-together by the right of potential ammunition to use against Hilary Clinton if she runs. Are the Democrats are trying to tempt one of their most dangerous potential opponents with a political honeytrap? Maybe not intentionally, but even if it's an accident, that's effectively what's happening. Today's photo-op will give Christie's opponents plenty of ammunition. The GOP is the party, remember, which fielded candidates in the last primary who were still loudly demanding to see Obama's birth certificate, who believed that “the secular-socialist machine presents as great a threat to Amerca as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union”, who appear to think that Obama is a satanist plot.

They, and those whose support feeds them, are who "Christie for President" will be dealing with when primary season rolls around. Grinning pictures with Obama, high-fiving by the seaside? That's not a winning look to those guys.