By Ellen Wulfhorst
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, once a darling in the Republican Party, is now everybody's darling in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
With his highly visible visits to storm-damaged coastal towns with President Barack Obama, not to mention a surprise appearance on "Saturday Night Live," the blunt, brash governor has been winning over independents, Democrats and others who like the bipartisan image.
For all the havoc Sandy unleashed upon New Jersey, the storm put Christie in a politically enviable position, especially now that he is formally seeking re-election next year and touted as a top prospect for the White House in 2016.
But that also makes it his advantage to lose, say political experts. Christie need only look across the Hudson River, where Rudolph Giuliani's wide popularity as mayor of New York in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks proved fleeting.
For now, Christie is riding high on cross-over appeal, in his home state and neighboring New York at least. In a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday, a whopping 67 percent of New Jersey voters said he deserves a second term. It showed Christie leading his most likely Democratic opponent, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, by 18 points.
A poll on Tuesday illustrated the shift in support for Christie pre- and post-Sandy. The Rutgers-Eagleton poll showed 59 percent of registered state voters support him for a second term, and 32 percent are opposed. That is way up from late September, when 44 percent supported him but 47 were opposed.
"Up until the storm, he really has been one of the more polarizing governors," said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers and director of the poll. "People either felt really positive or very negative towards him.
"What we don't know is whether this dramatic shift is going to be something long term or is it simply a reflection of the aftermath of the crisis," he said.
A third of voters in New York City - where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one - gave Christie top marks post-storm in another recent survey. He scored well ahead of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat often mentioned as a presidential contender.
ENJOYING THE RIDE
Christie's obvious concern for his ravaged state, as well as his praise for Obama even as he backed Republican challenger Mitt Romney, helped change minds among his critics.
"It really does come down to the fact that people want their elected leaders to lead when there's a crisis, and Christie stood up and did it," said Redlawsk.
Christie is clearly enjoying the ride. His hefty girth and combative style have made him fodder for late night comedy and now he's turning the tables, stealing the show on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" earlier this month to make fun of himself.
"It's a smarter move than that of most politicians who would become prickly and stand-offish," said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. "He's using popular culture to deal with the problem he faces about himself."
Such moves have helped independents and moderates "see him as an honest player, somebody who's straight-forward and tells it like it is," said Republican pollster John McLaughlin.
Plenty of people now find themselves reluctantly liking him, despite disagreeing with him on such issues as his battles with the state teachers union over benefits and tenure, or the partisan combat over vacancies on the state Supreme Court.
"I fall into that category," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public policy at New York's Baruch College and a New Jersey resident. "I didn't vote for him, and I've criticized his approach to policy and the way he interacts with folks, but he did superbly during the storm and its immediate aftermath."
Nevertheless, a cautionary comparison can be made to Giuliani, another tough-talking Northeastern politician who won over hardened critics in the days after the September 11 attacks.
Giuliani's popularity ground down when he tried to extend his term as mayor, was seen as politicizing 9/11 and then ran a weak presidential campaign in 2008, Muzzio said.
"Giuliani blew it," Muzzio said.
And so, too, could Christie, experts say.
Some conservatives are fuming over what they saw as a self-serving betrayal by Christie that helped Obama win re-election. A week earlier, Christie had belittled Obama's leadership, likening it to a man wandering around a dark room, "hands groping for the lightswitch."
ConservativeNewJersey.com columnist Rob Eichmann said Christie's praise for Obama's handling of the storm was premature, if not undeserved.
"He's accomplishing his goal of wanting to get Democrats to like him," said Eichmann, but that could cost him with his base.
"As more Democrats like him, you're going to find people on the other side who say, 'Wow, he's really gone to the dark side,'" he said.
Seeking re-election, Christie could take credit for a major comeback or shoulder the blame for a costly, rocky recovery.
"The honeymoon glow is still there, but will you still love me tomorrow? No, not if we have increased taxes and the services don't come back and development doesn't happen," said Muzzio.
Re-election as governor is seen by many observers as helping position Christie for a presidential bid in 2016.
As to how Christie's standing with New Jersey voters may propel him nationally, 37 percent of registered voters in a recent Reuters/Ipsos polls have an improved opinion of him since Sandy struck, while 10 percent said their opinion of him fell.
But Christie remains a distant No. 2 in a hypothetical field of six Republican presidential contenders for 2016.
He trails Congressman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who was the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, 17 percent to 26 percent, but scores ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
(Editing by Dan Burns and Todd Eastham)