Don't go calling California's 2016 GOP presidential primary or general election for Chris Christie just yet, but a new Field Poll finds the Golden State's voters like him better than four other potential Republican candidates.
For now, the colorful New Jersey governor is leaving the others in the dust: 47 percent of California voters view him favorably, while 19 percent view him unfavorably and 34 percent have no opinion.
Christie is the only potential GOP candidate who's viewed more positively than negatively in the Golden State. And he's the only one who not only has a favorable image among Republicans but also among Democrats and independent voters.
"For now, Christie has a perception of being more centrist than the rest of the field," said Bruce Cain, a political expert who directs Stanford University's Bill Lane Center for the American West. "Whether he can maintain that profile through a Republican primary is another matter."
Cain said Christie could fall into the same trap that snared Mitt Romney in 2012: swinging far enough rightward to please the base, raise money and win primaries that he can't convincingly return to the middle to woo more moderate voters.
The Field Poll found three potential GOP presidential candidates are viewed favorably by more than half of California Republicans: Christie rides highest, at 59 percent favorability and 13 percent unfavorability, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, close behind. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., trail.
"He will have a target on his back; there's no question about it," Cain said of Christie, noting that parts of the GOP base might fault him for his coziness with President Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey last fall -- a political symbiosis that won Obama good press in his re-election campaign's final weeks while boosting Christie's approval ratings in his blue home state.
Christie carried those high ratings into last month's gubernatorial re-election bid, which he easily won with 60 percent of the vote. But Cain said it could be as much blessing as curse when only Republicans go to the polls to choose a presidential nominee.
Because the presidential primary is not subject to the "top two" system California fully launched last year, "the image profiles would seem to indicate that it would be a very competitive race" in the state, Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said.
But no Republican can win a statewide general election in California without wooing a lot of voters outside the party, DiCamillo noted, and Christie is the only one also viewed more favorably than not among Democrats (40 percent) and independents (44 percent).
"It would seem Christie would at least have a chance of bringing over some nonpartisans," DiCamillo said, adding that it's still very unlikely he could carry the state.
Field hasn't polled any hypothetical Democrat-versus-Republican matchups, but the state's lopsided voter registration figures make it a tough win for any Republican. "If it were Chris Christie in a November election compared to any other Republican contender in a November election," he said, "the margin (of defeat) would be a lot less."
The tea party movement -- with which Cruz and Paul identify -- doesn't find much traction among California voters, the poll found: More than twice as many see it as having a negative impact on politics as those who see it as positive, while almost a quarter say it has not much impact at all.