The next wave of polls will tell the true tale, but early reviews suggest that Gov. Chris Christie performed very well in the first GOP presidential debate of 2016 Thursday.

It is critical for the governor that the strong showing sways voters. Polls ranked Christie sixth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. Voters in those states head to the real polls in early February.

“It’s crucial that he appeared to do well in the debate because he needs to emerge from the second tier,” said Peter Woolley. a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “There are still too many candidates in this Republican race and too many people for voters to think about.”

Eleven GOP candidates are still standing. Nationally, Christie leads only Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. Getting just 3 percent support, the New Jersey governor ranked sixth nationally in the crowded Republican race. Christie trails Donald Trump (35 percent) by a full 33 percentage points.

“He (Christie) is not in the first tier and that’s where he needs to be to sustain his campaign past Iowa and New Hampshire,” Woolley said.

Trump’s lead might seem insurmountable to many, but a lot can change in a short amount of time. Another possible advantage for Christie: Many people still aren’t absolutely sure who they'll vote for, and a solid debate performance can’t hurt.

“Most people are really undecided. There are people who have a favorite candidate, but at this stage a lot of people can change their mind very quickly,” Woolley said.

Doing well in a debate is not a panacea for any candidate’s campaign, particularly when so many opponents are still in the race.

“In and of itself a good debate performance is not enough. It has to be combined with other factors, but there are plenty of factors out there. Ben Carson seems to be fading. Ted Cruz seems to have a new scandal to deal with. Some people are just unsure about Marco Rubio. Jeb Bush has not made resurgence. For Christie, almost anything could happen,” Woolley said.

Many political observers still strongly believe that Trump will drop out of the race at some point — and that would mean a lot of voters will have to settle for their second choice.

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.

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