Chris Christie appeared on four of the five Sunday morning television talk shows last week to celebrate his re-election as governor of New Jersey and not, repeat, not, his candidacy for president. True enough, he'd just pulled off a near miracle, winning women, immigrants, seniors, millennials, baby boomers, independents and vegans in a very blue state.
To his interviewers and much of the news media, and perhaps to the governor himself, that makes him the front-runner for the Republican nomination, but Christie is careful not to play along.
The coronation misses an important point. The very fact that Christie won in New Jersey makes him anathema to the activists who dominate the Republican primary process and who are angrier than ever after the establishment, for two elections in a row, nominated squishy moderates who lost. The establishment is making sounds about taking back the party from the don't-tread-on-me crowd. Good luck with that after bowing to their every whim.
In the meantime, there are two big reasons Christie may achieve his oft-repeated desire to finish his mission as governor: Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
The two senators are locked in a pre-primary that is playing out in Washington, visits to Iowa, and on late night TV.
Paul's behavior after being hit with accusations of plagiarism suggests he's not ready for prime time. It wasn't just the cribbing — though that got him relieved of his column in the conservative Washington Times — as much as his reaction to it. He went through the four stages of political grief, ending with the unfortunate standby that mistakes were made, but stopped short of acknowledging he was the one who made them.
Cruz, who lives to be attacked, aggrieved and aggressive, would have welcomed the charge: Wikipedia? What good is that if not to copy from?
Paul, however, let the accusation get under his thin skin without exactly refuting it. If it were legal, he said, he'd challenge his accusers to a duel. That was colorful enough to ensure an extra day of coverage. After accusations surfaced that he had also borrowed without attribution from publications put out by the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, Paul came up with the excuse of: what's a busy man to do but to rely on staff for "facts and anecdotes."
As the drip, drip, drip continued, he snapped that he didn't care anymore and would be perfectly happy packing up his medical bag and returning to the practice of medicine in Kentucky.
Christie may sit back and watch Cruz and Paul take each other out, or hope that the one who remains standing is Paul. Unlike Cruz, he doesn't know how to take a punch or throw one.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.