Chris Christie is buzzworthy in the winter of 2013, not just because Sandy relief money (or lack thereof) is a hot topic. No, the main reason he was featured today on four morning shows, the main reason he is newly emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine, is because the Republican party is a leaderless chasm, a yawning vacuum begging to be filled.

Seriously, who speaks for the GOP these days? John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, leaders of the hapless congressional wing? John McCain and his sidekick-echo Lindsey Graham, the showhorses of Sunday TV? Newt Gingrich, whose power peaked circa 1997? Paul Ryan, who couldn't even carry his home town in the '12 election, arguably fills the pragmatic conservative niche, but that's all. Marco Rubio, who, unlike Ryan, opposed the fiscal cliff deal, arguably fills the purist conservative niche, but that's all. Meanwhile, there's nary a peep from George W. Bush or Dick Cheney. And Mitt Romney has apparently vaporized. A few years back, the pollsters at Pew asked Americans to name the leader of the GOP; only 27 percent managed to same someone. The number-two choice was Rush Limbaugh.

This is where Christie comes in. He's a potential party leader, if only by default.

Granted, he has his own baggage, starting with a 9.6 percent New Jersey jobless rate, one of the highest nationwide. And his vocal complaints about the slow pace of Sandy relief - slowed, naturally, by the Republican House - may only serve to exacerbate the party's intramural tensions, which are both ideological and regional. But, as evidenced by what I heard this morning, when Christie popped up on CBS, ABC, NBC, and MSNBC, he's clearly comfortable with advertising himself as a potential '16 candidate whose prime asset is his rhetorical distance from the party's dysfunction.

Prompted by the Sandy relief debacle, he's already running against the congressional Republicans. In his remarks this morning on ABC, he painted that gang as disconnected from reality. He essentially said that the role of government is to help people in need, a lesson that the House GOP apparently needs to relearn: "Sandy is and was above politics. There are certain things that happen in our lives that have to be above politics and both parties should rise above, as hard as that is for them sometimes. I’d like them to learn to listen. Listen to people in my state, listen to the people in the state of New York. They’re suffering, they’re hurting, and they don’t understand why they’ve had to wait seven times longer than the victims of Katrina to get any federal aid."

And when asked on NBC whether the party is in good shape, he happily took the bait: "We've lost two elections in a row. The answer is no. You're in politics to win and get your ideas forward. We've lost two elections in a row, and we need to be thinking of something different."

Given the congressional GOP's low standing in the polls, Christoe knows it's good politics to bash them. This morning, he dutifully echoed the public's general complaint that Washington Republicans are too ideologically averse to compromise. On MSNBC, he said that, by contrast, "I wake up every morning knowing that even though I think I'm right, I'm not going to get everything I want." Indeed, he has little enthusiasm for another debt ceiling crisis, fomented by Republicans who would hold hostage America's full faith and credit until President Obama agrees to spending cuts. When asked on NBC whether he'd endorse that kind of congressional brinksmanship, he repeatedly begged off: "We've got a bunch of different options at our disposal. (There are) a number of things that we can do," although he didn't name any.

Christie keeps gaining in prominence because the rest of his party keeps shrinking in the public's estimation. A 2016 presidential bid wouldn't be easy - conservative primary voters would target his often-moderate track record - but, in political time, that's light years away. What matters for now is that, as a governor-outsider, he is well positioned to lob rhetorical grenades at the GOP's Washington wing and play to the swing-voting Americans who share his antipathy. In a reference this morning to his fellow Republican governors, he said, "We're compromising when we need to." That's the message swing voters want to hear.

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Speaking of GOP ideological rigidity:

Today is the 100th birthday of Richard Nixon - who (constitutional sins aside) championed the Clean Air Act, signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the bill creating federal legal aid to the poor, signed the Title IX bill that bans sex discrimination in education, supported stronger enforcement of affirmative action rules, and who, on Dec. 30, 1969, signed a bill that made it tougher for the rich to avoid paying taxes. In his words, "a large number of high-income persons who have paid little or no federal income taxes will now bear a fairer share of the tax burden."

If Nixon had tried to run in today's Republican primaries, with that kind of record, he would never make it out of Iowa.

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