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TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie is taking risks in charting a path toward a potential 2016 White House run, staking out positions that may alienate his party's activists as he seeks to demonstrate the broad appeal that could win a presidential election.
Christie's decision last week to sign a state ban on so- called "gay-conversion therapy" — the effort to turn homosexual teenagers straight — and his comments asserting that homosexuality is inborn and not a sin are the latest sign he is willing to defy Republican orthodoxy as he presses for a big re- election victory this year in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
It's a high-stakes strategy for a governor who has made a trademark of his Jersey-style scrappiness and who still hasn't been forgiven by many Republicans for praising President Barack Obama last year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. While Christie, 50, is positioning himself to win a commanding victory in November's vote, he may be simultaneously undermining his standing in early-primary states in which religious voters hold outsized sway in his party's nominating process.
"There's a lot of suspicious conservatives about Christie ever since he embraced Obama in the last go-round, and my sense is he is making it far more difficult than it needs to be" to mount a bid for his party's presidential nomination in 2016, Republican strategist Ed Rollins said in an interview.
Christie could argue, based on a strong New Jersey re- election win, "that he has the appeal that most traditional Republicans don't have, particularly in the Northeast," Rollins said. "But the problem is, he then has to go into Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire and defend those positions. He can't just dismiss them, and he'll be facing some very strong candidates who are basically going to hammer him on it."
A July poll in Iowa by Hamden, Conn.-based Quinnipiac University showed that, by 58 percent to 33 percent, Republicans support amending the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage.
In signing the sexual-orientation therapy ban, Christie — a Roman Catholic who has opposed same-sex marriage — cited potential health risks to children, "including, but not limited to, depression, substance abuse, social withdrawal, decreased self-esteem and suicidal thoughts."
"Government should tread carefully into this area and I do so here reluctantly," he said in the statement. He added: "Exposing children to these health risks without clear evidence of benefits that outweigh these serious risks is not appropriate."
Christie's office said in a statement that his action was "consistent with his belief that people are born gay and homosexuality is not a sin," a position he took publicly in 2011, when he told CNN's Piers Morgan that he differs with his church on the issue. "If someone is born that way, it's very difficult to say then that that's a sin," he said then.
Christie drew headlines for an Aug. 15 speech at a Boston meeting of the Republican National Committee, in which he argued his political success in New Jersey can offer a template for his party in future elections. Christie used the speech to take issue with another Republican regarded as a prospective 2016 presidential contender, saying he wouldn't be "one of these people who come and call our party stupid," as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did earlier this year.
Some party strategists said Christie's actions demonstrate he's forging his own path, something that will appeal to Republicans craving a different approach.
"What he's doing is pretty clever, in that he's talking to the hearts and minds of Republicans that are still stung by the 2012 loss, but at the same time is putting his own stamp of conservative politics on his governing style in New Jersey," said Republican strategist Scott Reed, chairman of Washington, D.C.-based Chesapeake Enterprises who ran former Kansas senator Bob Dole's 1996 Republican presidential campaign.
Reed, who also advised former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, said Christie was working off of Kean's model of seeking to expand the Republican Party's appeal.
"He's talking about what he believes, and that's one of the real attractive attributes of Christie, is he lets it all hang out," Reed said. "He will not have an authenticity problem."
Christie has also been engaged in a public spat with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the anti-tax tea party favorite who has said he is eying a potential 2016 White House bid. Last month, Christie called Paul's libertarian approach to national security issues "dangerous" in a time of terrorist threats, touching off an ongoing feud between his staff and the senator's.
Paul said Aug. 18 on "Fox News Sunday" that Christie's remarks were "a big mistake," and that he's the one best- positioned to "bring new people to our party."
"The party in the Northeast is shrinking almost down to nothing," Paul said.
In New Jersey, Christie has tread carefully around issues surrounding homosexuality as national polls show a majority of Republicans oppose gay marriage amid broader acceptance of the practice. A Gallup poll last month showed about two-thirds of Republicans are against making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 U.S. states. The survey of about 2,000 adults found that 52 percent of all voters favor such a measure.
On Feb. 17, 2012, Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill, saying he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Three weeks earlier, he nominated Bruce Harris, a Republican and openly gay lawyer, to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Senate Democrats declined to confirm Harris after the nominee said he would recuse himself from gay-marriage issues.
Republicans nationally have emphasized opposition to gay marriage as a central tenet of the party, which is heavily influenced by activists — including many evangelical Christians — who dominate the early presidential contests, such as the Iowa caucus.
The 2012 Republican Party platform endorsed efforts to protect "traditional marriage," asserting that it was best for children and that its erosion ultimately would lead to bigger and more costly government.
Following their 2012 election losses, when Republicans failed to win the White House or take control of the U.S. Senate, many party leaders are rethinking their approach. A March RNC report said the party "must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming," or risk alienating young people, women and others "who agree with us on some but not all issues."
The party's religious conservative wing rejected that approach, demonstrating its sway the month after the report's release at a gathering in Los Angeles, when the RNC approved a resolution affirming core values, including that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Christie isn't alone among potential Republican presidential contenders in distancing himself from the party's core supporters on issues surrounding homosexuality. Paul has come out in opposition to a national law banning same-sex marriage, saying the matter should be left to the states.
Christie, though, is leaving himself no choice but to "run as a moderate, liberal Rockefeller Republican, and that's not proven to be a very successful strategy," said Rollins, referring to the late New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, who failed in bids for the party's presidential nomination.
Christie is adopting "almost a Rudy Giuliani strategy — and it certainly didn't work" when the former New York mayor unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 2008, said Rollins.
Davis reported from Washington. Stacie Sherman contributed from Trenton, N.J.