2016: Will Chris Christie's pain be Jeb Bush's gain?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on March 29, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller, Getty Images

In the early 2016 Republican presidential sweepstakes, could former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush be the beneficiary of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's recent stumbles?

That's the question a number of analysts are starting to ask as Christie, formerly a clear favorite of the GOP establishment, starts to lose his luster, tarnished by months of critical headlines about the George Washington Bridge traffic scandal in New Jersey.

"I sense a boomlet about Jeb Bush is all about Chris Christie," said Harvard University's David Gergen Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "People thought they were going to ride the Chris Christie horse and...they now think that horse may be lame and they're looking for somebody else."

Both Christie and Bush are cut from the same mainstream Republican cloth: well liked by the donor class and viewed suspiciously by conservative activists. If they both compete in 2016 -- and to be clear, neither has decided on a bid -- they'll be fighting for the roughly same slice of the Republican pie, and perhaps more importantly, many of the same donors.

A Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas this weekend provided a vivid demonstration of their diverging fortunes. The event could have been Christie's opportunity to reclaim the mantle of the establishment. Instead, Christie's appearance was marred by the governor's description of the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied territories" -- a term shunned by the pro-Israel donors and activists in the audience.

The governor reportedly apologized for using the term during a private meeting with RJC board member and billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, and his speech was otherwise well-received.

But as Christie stumbled, Bush soared. The former governor was feted at a private dinner on Thursday to kick off the weekend. The dinner was held at Adelson's private airplane hangar.

Bush delivered brief remarks at the dinner, and after one attendee urged him to run for president, the crowd of donors burst into applause, according to a report in the Washington Post.

That report described how many of the GOP's top money men are giving Jeb Bush a fresh look in light of Christie's recent struggles.

"He's the most desired candidate out there," Brian Ballard, a prominent bundler for both John McCain and Mitt Romney, told the Post. "Everybody that I know is excited about it."

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a former mentor to Christie, conceded, "The Bush family has an enormous number of friends who would be liable to go back to a place where they have been before."

It was not too long ago that Bush seemed to be leaning against a run in 2016. But a rising political profile and a relatively busy 2014 campaign schedule are causing some to reconsider that assumption.

"Every report was that he was not going to do it, he had made up his mind," said CBS News' Bob Schieffer on Sunday. "But my sense is he's rethinking it."

"If enough people ask you to do something, your firm 'no' becomes a, 'Well, gosh, let me think about it,'" added the Washington Post's David Ignatius.

Neither Christie nor Bush can count on an open path to the nomination. Despite obvious strengths, both are generally center-right Republicans, hewing to the middle at a time when the energy in the GOP is on the right.

And each has unique vulnerabilities. Bush, for his part, is as handicapped by his last name as he is helped by the connections it affords. He's also been out of office since 2006, and whether he has the stomach for a long presidential slog remains an open question.

And nobody knows quite how big a toll the bridge scandal will take on Christie. Even if he's able to verify he knew nothing about his aides' apparent orchestration of traffic problems to punish a local mayor, voters may still wonder whether he played a role in fostering a cutthroat political environment in his administration.

Chris Christie "is an unusually gifted politician," New York Times Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan said on "Face the Nation."

However, during a press conference this week intended to put the scandal behind him, "the bombastic, belittling Chris Christie was back, and the more penitent, thoughtful, self-reflective Chris Christie had vaporized," said Ryan. "And it really made you wonder...to what degree did he learn anything here?"

And it's not as if Bush and Christie's potential rivals in 2016 are ready to cede the blessing of the Republican establishment. Govs. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., and John Kasich, R-Ohio, also traveled to Las Vegas this weekend to court the donors there.

Walker told the RJC on Saturday about the menorah he lights at the Wisconsin governor's mansion during Hanukkah, and he stressed the need for the U.S. to stand firmly behind Israel. He noted that he named his first son "Matthew," which means "gift of God" in Hebrew.

"Hey, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me," Kasich chummily told Adelson after speaking during a luncheon on Saturday. "I don't travel to these things much, but this was one that I thought was really, really important."

  • Jake Miller

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