What will it take to get Chris Christie to say yes and run for the GOP nomination?
Come on down -- Sarah Palin.
If the queen of the Tea Party makes a grand entrance into the Republican primary sweepstakes the New Jersey governor will finally say yes to all the calls for him to jump into the race.
At this moment Palin has reason to think she should run. A mid-September McClatchy/Marist poll of registered voters put her only 5 percentage points behind President Obama in a head-to-head match-up. No previous poll ever put her in the elite category of Republicans within striking distance of defeating the president.
This week Palin, appearing on Fox News, said she has to make up her mind soon because “You have to get your ducks lined up in order to get your name on ballots.” She emphasized that she doesn’t need the title of president to make a difference in American politics. Still, the former Alaska governor, apparently responding the recent good poll numbers, said she is confident she can win the White House in 2012 because “Americans are ready for someone outside the box.”
All the talk about Palin has the Republican political establishment seeing red. They fear losing control of the nominating process and the whole party spiraling down, sinking into a sea of far-right polarization and the cult of personality around Palin if “Sarah Barracuda” – her nickname as star high school basketball player -- swims into their waters and begins eating up Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and the other current Republican candidates.
Republican insiders read the McClatchy poll as the exception to a steady stream of polling results that has Palin losing badly to Obama.
The latest CNN/Opinion Research poll has Palin being crushed by the Democratic incumbent by 21 percentage points. The Real Clear Politics average of all polling has Obama ahead of Palin by 12.8 percentage points.
Top Republican strategists also point to a CBS News/New York Times poll, done earlier this month, which found Palin has the highest unfavorable ratings of any GOP candidate, potential or declared, with 62% of all registered voters saying they view her negatively. Even her approval and disapproval ratings among her fellow Republican is only evenly divided.
None of those numbers will matter if Palin gets in the race. She will become a media sensation. The rest of the field will be an afterthought. That is the moment when the Republican political establishment will send out the call for the one remaining political star on the GOP side who can take the spotlight away from Palin. That candidate is Gov. Christie.
And “Palin for President” frenzy among the GOP rank and file, especially the Tea Party activists who adore her, will stir Christie’s competitive juices.
Until now he has said he does not feel the need to run “within me.” Recall that Christie did not want Palin to come to New Jersey to campaign for him when he ran for governor in 2009.
When the New York Times asked him about Palin earlier this year, he said "I think people need to be judged by the way they conduct themselves in the public arena, in a way that is as minimally staged as possible," adding "That's where you really get to know people."
When asked by NBC late night host Jimmy Fallon if Sarah Palin could be president, Christie chuckled and quipped “Who knows, Jimmy? It’s an amazing world.”
In political terms, Christie is the anti-Palin.
Yes, he generates passion in the GOP grassroots and Tea Party with his blunt talk and his Ronald Reagan-like battles with unions.
But unlike Palin and the Tea Party the New Jersey governor is a political moderate who supports immigration reform and civil unions for gays.
And despite all the appeals for him to take to the national stage Christie has not quit on the people who elected him governor – unlike a former Alaska governor who quit in mid-term.
And there's more... Christie also has a record of accomplishment as governor that he can use as the basis for a campaign to the leader of the free world.
Yes, unemployment and taxes remain high in the Garden State. However, he was able to pass a budget through his state’s Democratic legislature that dramatically cut spending in the Garden State without raising taxes. He achieved pension and benefit reform for state employees which will go a long way towards fixing New Jersey’s finances.
Most recently, he personally welcomed President Obama to the state and stood with him for pictures after the state was hit by Hurricane Irene. These factors make him potentially appealing to independent voters – the same voters likely to run away from Palin.
If Palin jumps into the race and the outside pressure on Christie will ratchet up, too.
The specter of Palin as the GOP nominee will prompt even more establishment Republicans to go public with appeals to Christie to make a run, including the former Florida governor Jeb Bush and possibly the entire Bush family.
Nicolle Wallace, President Bush’s former communications director, went on TV this week to say Palin is the inspiration for her novel about a deranged candidate – “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” -- who makes it to the White House.
A Christie-Palin matchup would be a contest not just for the nomination but for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Under those circumstances, Christie will decide he has no choice but to get into the game.
Juan Williams is a writer, author and Fox News political analyst. His most recent book is "Muzzled: The Assault On Honest Debate" (Crown/Random House) was released in July.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.