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How will Sandy impact Chris Christie's political future?

Chris Christie, Barack Obama
President Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Atlantic City, NJ. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

After Superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Monday said President Obama "deserves great credit" for his response to the storm, calling the administration's cooperation with the state government "outstanding." It was a far cry from his keynote address at the Republican National Convention this August, when Christie decried the "era of absentee leadership" in the Obama White House.

But for those who know Christie, his praise for the president this week made perfect sense: "He's quintessential New Jersey: he speaks his mind, he tells it like it is," longtime New Jersey Republican strategist Roger Bodman told CBSNews.com.

Christie's frank and outspoken approach to politics has earned him nationwide notoriety and has kept up his reputation in New Jersey, even as his state's economy continues to struggle. His response to the storm, including his tour of the affected areas today with Mr. Obama, adds another layer to his legacy as governor and a level of complexity to his future political prospects.

Gov. Christie tours NJ shore ravaged by Superstorm Sandy

Christie, for his part, has dismissed any talk of politics as he manages the state's response to the crisis, even with Election Day a week away. In an interview on Fox News, Christie brushed off the question of whether Mitt Romney would visit the impacted areas of New Jersey.

"I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested," he responded. "I've got a job to do here in New Jersey that's much bigger than presidential politics, and I could [not] care less about any of that stuff."

Whether he's thinking of politics or not, Christie's fervent response to the crisis, and his clear willingness to work with the Democratic president, could reassure New Jersey voters that he deserves to be re-elected next year.

Christie has remained popular in the state, the most recent polls show: In an Oct. 17 Quinnipiac poll, 56 percent of New Jersey registered voters said they approved of his job performance while just 38 percent disapproved. That's in spite of the fact that the unemployment in New Jersey reached 9.8 percent in September, leaving it with the fourth worst jobless rate in the country.

The governor's continued popularity, Bodman said, "has to do with his leadership style. You may not agree with this guy, but a lot of my very dear, very Democratic friends... appreciate his leadership, his straight talk, and there's a lot to be said for that."

Winning over voters is no small task for a Republican governor in a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, where Democrats, Bodman noted, will typically win statewide elections by a quarter of a million votes on average. The Quinnipiac poll this month showed that while Christie has a strong job approval rating, Newark Mayor Cory Booker -- a rising national star in his own right -- could put up a strong fight against Christie, should he choose to run for governor next year. But if the response to Sandy goes well, that could work in Christie's favor.

"There are a lot of cases where leaders who don't step up to the plate after a natural disaster are turned out of office," said Republican strategist John Weaver. "This is really what they're hired to do... Gov. Christie has performed like he should, and he'll be rewarded."

Whether that means Christie could parlay his success into a future presidential bid is an unknown at this point, said Weaver, who served as John McCain's chief strategist for more than 10 years and worked on Jon Huntsman's Republican presidential campaign.

"In the middle of a crisis like this they don't think that far ahead," Weaver said. "First off, he's got to deal with an unimaginable crisis, then he's got a long time rebuilding -- there are too many things that have to happen before" Christie can think of his long term political future.

Christie resisted calls for him to enter the 2012 contest, but there's speculation he could run for president in 2016. As Weaver's 2012 candidate Huntsman knows all too well, a close association with Mr. Obama isn't likely to help a Republican in a presidential primary. Weaver, however, again said it's too early to say what could happen.

"If our party goes on to lose next Tuesday, we don't know what kind of primary process we'll have four years from now," he said. "History tells us that those who step up the plate and put their state first are rewarded by voters."

Weaver added, "I don't see any politics being played right now. There are a lot of pundits and press who want to suggest politics is playing some role in the president's trip to New Jersey, but this is what they're supposed to be doing."

An aide for Christie reportedly denied speculation that a growing rift with Romney -- whom Christie endorsed early on in the Republican presidential primary -- spurred the governor's praise for Mr. Obama.

If Christie were to face any future criticism for working with Mr. Obama, he would brush it off in his typically outspoken style, Bodman said.

"I don't see how anyone could blame a governor of a devastated state for working with the sitting president to help his people," Bodman said. "If anyone wants to kick him in the political tail for doing that, he'd say, 'Screw you.'"