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How NJ Gov. Chris Christie could save the GOP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Tuesday's off-year elections could bring a significant shift in the power center of the Republican Party.

New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie is expected to rack up a huge re-election win over State Sen. Barbara Buono. Virginia's GOP nominee for governor, state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, is likely to lose by a wide margin to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. And the Republican nominee for mayor of New York City, Joe Lhota, is also going expected to go down to a humbling defeat.

The message from all these races: The fiercely conservative, tea party wing of the GOP that produced government shutdowns, debt ceiling near-disasters and a series of Senate nominees too conservative to win, is on the decline.

Christie, a relatively moderate northeastern Republican, is likely to emerge Wednesday morning as the clear-front runner for the 2016 GOP nomination for president.

Christie himself has called it "inevitable" that people will read a national message into what could be a 30-point or more win over Buono. Many Republicans will say Christie is too moderate and too palatable to Democrats to get through a GOP primary process dominated by sharply conservative voters in Iowa and other early caucus states.

Don't believe it.

The national GOP and its supporters in the business community are desperate for a candidate who can reverse the party's terrible trends with women and minority voters. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., are not viewed as capable of doing this.

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Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is viewed as somewhat more appealing, but his disastrous immigration reform evolution—he now essentially opposes the bill he helped pass in the Senate—lead many to question his readiness for the national stage.

Other promising Republicans at the gubernatorial level include John Kasich in Ohio and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana. But none have Christie's star power or fundraising base.

Christie, though currently limited by New Jersey's pay-to-play laws barring him from raising money on Wall Street, will ultimately have a huge donor network to draw on should he get into the presidential race—something that seems virtually certain.

And the GOP has already been moving to limit the number of debates in 2015 and 2016 that could allow more conservative Republicans to damage a candidate like Christie, much as they did with Mitt Romney in 2012.

And Christie does not even need to win Iowa to get the nomination. Ronald Reagan lost to George Bush in the state in 1980. Mick Huckabee won the caucuses in 2008 over eventual nominee John McCain. Iowa is vastly overrated as a big political indicator. New Hampshire, meanwhile, could be very friendly to Christie, as could other primary states to follow.

And those who argue for sticking with—or doubling down on—the tea party model need look no further than Virginia to see how dangerous that approach can be. Cuccinelli ran on a fiercely conservative message on both fiscal and social issues in a key swing state and is likely to lose by a large margin to McAuliffe, a candidate most Republicans thought should be easy to beat.

Virginia, with its growing and diverse DC-area suburban population, is the kind of state—along with Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and others—that Republicans have to win in national elections to overcome the Democratic lock on electorally rich states such as California and New York.

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Christie, or someone like him, could be the key to unlocking those states and possibly cutting even further into blue territory.

The sad state of the national GOP brand also will be on display in New York on Tuesday, where Lhota has had to sprint away from the party but is still likely to get crushed by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a very liberal candidate who under other circumstances might have had a far harder road to City Hall.

The main takeaway from Tuesday probably will be that while Christie has some big issues (on full display in a new book), the road to Republican political redemption may well run through Trenton, N.J.

—By Ben White, POLITICO's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. White also authors the daily tip sheet POLITICO Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney] Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.

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