Chris Christie's Hispanic High Wire Act Could Pay Off or Prove Fatal

The New Jersey governor has had the political Midas touch so far.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, smiles as he listens to a question from  Cindy McCain at a McCain Institute forum Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, in Phoenix.
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Thus far in his political career, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has shown a natural ability to offend – then befriend – political opponents and allies alike. But as he gears up for a potential 2016 presidential run, the larger-than-life politician's ability to play both sides against each other and end up a winner will be tested.

[READ: If Chris Christie Ruled the World, He'd Ban D.C.'s Most Toxic Microphones]

Most obviously, his recent foray into immigration politics reveals just how bright and unforgiving the national spotlight can be.

Leading up to his 2013 re-election, Christie announced he supported granting in-state tuition for students in the country illegally – an important goal of pro-immigrant groups.

"I believe every child should be able to give the opportunity to reach their God-given potential," Christie said at the Latino Leadership Alliance gala in October. "We need to make sure that we continue to work on issues that will make those children believe they have a bigger and brighter future. We need to get to work in the state legislature on things like making sure that there's tuition equality for everybody in New Jersey."

Christie ended up winning 51 percent of the Hispanic vote, and trounced his lesser known Democratic opponent among all demographics on Election Day. A year before, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney only earned 27 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, down from previous candidates. Immediately, Christie and Republican Party officials touted his broad appeal as a model for the party, which has struggled to compete with Democrats among the country's most rapidly growing voting bloc, from coast-to-coast.

Speaking to top executives gathered in Washington, D.C., shortly after his re-election, Christie chided national Republicans for not doing the dirty work necessary to court minority voters.

"We made the concerted effort from the time I got into office … we started working with those groups and getting them a serious seat at the table, knowing they weren't always going to agree with my policies, but that they were going to be listened to," he said Nov. 18.

But some of the pro-immigrant groups that had been encouraged by Christie's seeming support were disappointed – and felt betrayed – when the governor said he would not sign the New Jersey legislature's bill addressing in-state tuition.

"Giving undocumented, out-of-state students benefits that out-of-state citizens aren't eligible for, I'm not in favor of," Christie said during a call-in radio program Nov. 25.

[ALSO: Christie's Gay Marriage Decision Will Be a 2016 Issue]

"So under the current piece of legislation, if you're an undocumented student who lives in Pennsylvania, and you come over to go to private or parochial school in New Jersey, under this bill, you would then be entitled to, if you spent three years in that school, to in-state tuition," he said. "If you're a citizen in Pennsylvania, and you come over, and spend three years, you're not entitled to that."

The governor called on the Democratically-controlled legislature – that he's worked closely with in the past – to tweak the bill to accommodate his concerns, but they declined.

A New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial issued Sunday blasted Christie for hypocrisy, and laid the blame on his presidential ambitions.

"If Gov. Chris Christie thinks voters won't notice if he promises one thing when he's running for governor, then another when he's running for president, he's dreaming," the editorial said. "The real reason for his flip-flop? Christie has his eyes on the presidency. And if he has to roll over Latinos to get there, he'll do it."

Emily Benavides, communications director for the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-leaning, pro-immigration reform group, says there's no reason to criticize Christie.

"I disagree that it's flip-flopping," she says. "I would say Chris Christie is saying he does believe that the Dreamers deserve in-state tuition, it's just that the policy that has come out of the New Jersey legislature is in line with the provisions that he would like to see and he doesn't want it to be abused by people who aren't actually living in New Jersey, which I think it legitimate."