New Jersey is ground zero for the next epic battle over gay marriage. It's happening in the state legislature, and it's happening in the state courts; two days ago, marriage-equality lawyers asked a judge to legalize gay marriage statewide. All of which figures to be a political headache for Chris Christie.

If the governor truly has presidential aspirations, as we seem to assume, his adamant opposition to gay marriage issue could help boost or break him. His out-of-the-mainstream stance may well please the evangelical voters who traditionally dominate the early Republican contests (in 2012, they were 56 percent of the Iowa caucus-goers, and 64 percent of the South Carolina primary voters) - but if the issue is still alive in 2016, his stance could turn off general-election swing voters, who already view marriage equality as a given.

How Christie plays the marriage issue, in the turbulent months ahead, could help determine his future.

North of the Potomac River, New Jersey is now the only East Coast state where gay marriage remains illegal. Christie is the reason, because he vetoed the 2012 bill that would've made it legal. Democrats in the Trenton legislature may still try to override the veto (they have until January), but they can't do it unless they corral some Republican votes - a tall order, because Republicans are afraid to cross Christie.

Meanwhile, the issue is back in state court, where the New Jersey battle began 11 years ago. Lamda Legal, a gay equality advocacy group, told a Jersey judge on Wednesday that the state's gay couples deserve to get the same government benefits as straight couples. Jersey has a civil union law - in essence, a lesser form of marriage - but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that only legally-married gays can receive the 1,138 federal benefits that straights get.

"Incredibly insulting"

Clearly, the marriage-equality lawyers believe that the high court ruling (which invoked the principle of equal protection) has boosted their Jersey case. They represent (among others) a male couple that moved to Jersey after being legally married in Massachusetts. The lawyers told the judge: "State-sanctioned marriage provides the key to the full array of federal marital benefits. The discrimination manifest in relegating same-sex couples to civil unions establishes the clearest possible violation of the state constitutional guarantee" of equal rights.

The judge has scheduled oral arguments for August 15. Barring a miraculous flip flop, Christie will send his legal team to argue for a perpetuation of inequality. After all, he has already denounced the high court's gay-friendly decision as "incredibly insulting." That puts him in sync with the national Republican platform, adopted at the 2012 convention, which denounced gay marriage as an "assault on the foundations of our society."

That mentality happens to be out of sync with the mainstream - the latest Washington Post poll puts support for gay marriage at 58 percent, an all-time high - but, within the conservative Republican cocoon, fealty to marriage inequality is still enforced with a vengeance. If Christie has any hopes of navigating Iowa and South Carolina, he needs to demonstrate to the litmus-testers that he can hold the line in a blue state.

As Gary Marx, director of a prominent religious right group, warned the other day, "Any presidential candidate seeking the Republican party nomination in 2016 has to be very careful not to poke a stick in the eye of that (conservative) base vote."

Saved by the judges?

Fortunately for Christie, he has some room to maneuver. He can stroke the conservative base without suffering political damage back home. Most New Jersyans support gay marriage - 59 percent of them, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton poll - but Christie is so far ahead of his 2013 re-election opponent, Barbara Buono, that he can keep saying No and still emerge victorious. (After all, most swing voters are not single-issue voters.)

He also has a potential exit strategy. He has repeatedly said that a state ballot measure would be the best solution. He told CNN last year: "If the people of New Jersey...are in favor of it, then my position would not be the winning position, but I'm willing to take that risk," and he'd abide by the results. He cleverly put the ball in his opponent's court, because Democrats and marriage equality advocates are wary of taking that route, mindful that gay marriage referenda have often failed (at least in the past).

Actually, one particular outcome would probably aid him the most. If the Jersey courts ultimately OK gay marriage, Christie will have sufficient political cover to say, in essence, "The judges have spoken, I respect their right to act as they did, it's out of my hands, and we all must abide by the ruling." That might sweep the issue off his table in 2016.

But for now, mindful of the early primaries, he has to show the Republican right that he cares. And Buono, his gubernatorial opponent, is unwittingly aiding his strategy; she's out on the stump saying, "One man in New Jersey stands in the way of marriage equality!" Christie should use her quote in the Iowa and South Carolina TV ads.

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