Tropical Storm Athena wasn't the only Nor'easter to hit New Jersey yesterday: Gov. Chris Christie found himself in the middle of a political storm of his own making, as conservative critics blamed his public praise of President Obama's leadership during Hurricane Sandy last week for Republican Mitt Romney's narrow defeat Tuesday.

Conservatives pile on

Commentators from Rush Limbaugh to Dick Morris to Rudy Giuliani yesterday asserted that Christie did more than Hurricane Sandy to halt Romney's momentum in the final week, with Morris contending that "Christie's fawning promotion of Obama's presidential leadership . . . made all the difference" in Obama's victory.

But as much as Christie's praise for Obama could undermine a presidential bid in 2016, it will strengthen his claim to bipartisanship if he runs for reelection to a second term, analysts agreed.

While critics sputtered that Christie's comment gave Obama an image of competence in sharp contrast to former President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, Obama delivered Christie a made-to-order 2013 gubernatorial campaign ad when he told storm-battered residents at an Atlantic County community center that "your governor is working overtime to make sure that as soon as possible everybody can get back to normal."

I campaigned for Romeny

Christie angrily dismissed questions about the growing criticism from the Republican Right yesterday, telling reporters at a press conference in Harvey Cedars that he was "extremely disappointed" by Romney's defeat. The governor said defensively that his praise for Obama "doesn't take away for a minute the fact that I was the first governor in America to endorse Mitt Romney, that I traveled literally tens of thousands of miles for him, raised tens of millions of dollars for him, and worked harder, I think, than any other surrogate in America other than Paul Ryan who became his running mate."

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, and Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, agreed that the image of Christie working closely with Obama in the aftermath of the storm will pay off for the governor with New Jersey voters, but whether it will hurt him with Republican voters in presidential primaries is an open question.

Christie 2016?

"Democrats and Republicans will give the governor high marks for his ongoing leadership leading up to and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and his ability to work with a Democrat like President Obama certainly burnishes his national image as a conservative Republican who can work across the aisle," Dworkin said. "But whether that image is going to be a successful one in what is certain to be a crowded Republican presidential primary field [in 2016] remains to be seen."

Christie is "still a primary leader of the national Republican Party, no question about it, but he is no longer the presumptive nominee in 2016, and a lot of that has to do with events over the past few months," Murray noted, citing the sniping by Republicans displeased that Christie's keynote speech at the Republican National Convention talked more about Christie than about Romney, as well as the controversy over Christie's repeated praise for Obama during Hurricane Sandy.

Murray said "Chris Christie's great success was convincing hard-right conservatives outside of New Jersey that he was one of them without having to do anything to prove it. They just thought they had a winner"

Christie's appeal if he runs for president in 2016 "will be that he can win in November because he recognizes that the Republican Party needs to have a bigger tent," Murray said. "He will have to navigate a primary with a lot of conservatives just like Romney did." But unlike Romney, Christie will not compromise his principles in a way that makes him look weak, Murray predicted.

Christie made it clear to reporters gathered in Harvey Cedars yesterday for his latest storm briefing that he wasn't going to talk about whether he is thinking about running for president in 2016 or reelection as governor in 2013. Not with a major Nor'easter about to hit his hurricane-ravaged state. "I've got a job to do in New Jersey," Christie said. "My future, whatever it is, will take care of itself."

But there is no question that Christie's handling of his job over the past 10 days did a lot to boost his political future, although not without the storm of controversy that seems to follow every larger-than-life Christie move. And yesterday, once again, he was forced to defend his decision to openly praise Obama in the final week of Romney's 17-month campaign for the presidency.

"I'm a guy who tells the truth all the time and if the president of the United States did a good job, I'm going to say he did a good job," Christie said, dismissing criticism by some conservatives that his bipartisanship and single-minded focus on helping the state recover from the unprecedented destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy either intentionally or unintentionally crippled Romney's campaign -- and opened the door for Christie to run for president in 2016 if he chooses.

Typical of the frustration voiced by Republican critics was Giuliani's contention on Fox News that Obama's emergency management team failed to adequately stockpile water, gas, and generators in advance of the storm, yet Christie gave Obama an "undeserved photo op" anyway.

Did Christie believe Romeny would lose?

It was more than one photo op: Christie repeatedly praised Obama on national network interviews. Politico.com noted that Christie went out of his way to publicly praise Obama no fewer than six times during the week before the election. In fact, David Redlawsk, director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Poll, suggested on Politico that "Christie and Christie's advisers decided a long time ago Obama was going to win reelection," and furthermore that Christie knew that he would have to "run for re-election next year in a state that genuinely likes Obama."

Evidence of a growing strain between Christie and the Romney camp goes back at least as far as Romney's decision to select Ryan rather than Christie as his running mate after returning from his trip to the London Olympics in early August, and Romney's failure to inform Christie of his decision for almost a week.

Tension between the Christie camp and the Romney campaign boiled over Monday when Romney advisers told reporters on background that Christie had refused to cross the river from Trenton to Morrisville, Pa., for a Sunday night rally with Romney, and Christie fired back that he had told Romney on the eve of the October 29 hurricane that he would be unavailable for any campaign activities if the storm hit with full force. Christie criticized "know-nothing, disgruntled Romney staffers" worried that they would be blamed for a Romney loss on the morning of Election Day.

Curiously, Christie acknowledged yesterday morning that he had not yet called or emailed Romney, with whom he had campaigned so often, and said he would email him in a day or two, yet he had already spoken to both House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Election Night.

In the end, however, "the hurt feelings in the Romney camp don't really matter because Romney's out, " Murray said.

What does matter is the role that Christie plays in the debate over the future direction of the Republican Party -- one that political experts believe will pit Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, an advocate of outreach to Hispanic voters, against a more conservative wing of the GOP that includes not only the House Republican leadership, but also such leaders as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Will Christie run for re-election?

For Christie, the first hurdle, however, is to decide whether to run for reelection -- a task that looks much easier today than it did just before the storm when voters were almost evenly divided over whether he deserved a second term. In that latest Quinnipiac Poll, Christie held just a narrow lead over the two best-known prospective Democratic challengers, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and state Senator Richard Codey (D-Essex), a former Senate president who served as governor for a year after Jim McGreevey's resignation.

"I'm sure that whichever pollster is the first in the field after the election will show Christie with an approval rating well over 60 percent," Murray said. But he noted that popularity ratings can also fall rapidly. He pointed out that former President George H.W. Bush had a popularity rating above 90 percent in 1991 after winning the first Gulf War with an allied coalition he had assembled, yet he lost reelection slightly more than a year later over economic issues.

Murray said he would not be surprised if some potentially strong Democratic candidates looked at Christie's approval ratings and decided not to run.

The first question, however, is whether Christie decides to run, Dworkin noted.

"There has been some speculation that the governor might not want to deal with pesky and increasingly intransigent Democrats in a second term, and second terms are notoriously tough for New Jersey governors," Dworkin said. "But I also think the governor will want to prove that his 2009 election was not a fluke and will run for reelection to cement his legacy, and validate his agenda and leadership style."

Mark J. Magyar is an editor at large for NJ Spotlight.