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.

 New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. (Getty Images North America | Kena Betancur)

"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.


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"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. Naturally, Democrats and independents are far likelier to believe the tea party is having a negative impact, while a two-to-one margin of Republicans believe the movement is more positive.

Perhaps most telling is that 65 percent of California voters believe the tea party's influence on the Republican Party weakens the GOP's chances in 2014's midterm congressional elections -- a feeling shared even by almost half of Republican voters. Ultimately, only 7 percent of California voters say they identify with the tea party a lot, while 30 percent have some identification with it and 63 percent say they have no identification with it.

Valerie Tate, a Democrat from Concord, told the Field Poll she feels favorably toward Christie. That's because "he's no tea party guy, he goes with what the people in general would say and not with the religious right and all that," she said Tuesday.

Tate, 53, said she's almost embarrassed to say she likes Christie, given that she not only worked on President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign but even has a tattoo of the president's likeness. Yet Christie "seems real; he doesn't seem like your basic stupid Republican," said Tate, now on disability leave from her job as a driving instructor.

But Paul Carvajal, an independent voter from Santa Clara, said Christie and other potential GOP candidates are short on authenticity and long on talking points.

"People like us, we see people who are in power but haven't had the same type of struggle as us," said Carvajal, 44, who said he's a "manny" (male nanny) and tutor. "They just don't connect with me. They don't seem like they have what they did when they first got into politics -- they got their cars, they got their big houses, they got their name out there and now it's all just marketing."

The Field Poll surveyed 826 California registered voters from Nov. 14 through Tuesday; the poll has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.