Chris Christie is the Front Runner
Rick Perry certainly has a solid economic record in Texas and I agree that his Texas folksiness was sometimes reminiscent of George W. Bush, a politician still hated on the left and whom even many on the right had grown weary of defending. Bush famously struggled with choosing his words, creating a cottage industry of "Bushism" during his tenure. Perry seemed to be traveling down the same road when he famously forgot the third cabinet department he wanted to shutter during a televised debate. (To be fair, it was later reported that Perry was on pain medication for a bad back at the time.)
But the argument falls apart for the simple fact that Chris Christie will never remind voters of Bush (or Perry). His style is his own and is in some way the opposite of Bush. Where Bush struggled with his words, Christie is an excellent public speaker who almost daily speaks engagingly for an hour at a time without notes.
As for Christie being too contentious, keep in mind that the target of most of that toughness, until very recently, has been union leaders and Democrats. Republicans were very much behind that when they felt it was being directed at the proper targets. And there are few better targets than Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Christie has made his brashness a strength but it's not his only one. Let's also not forget that Christie has the ability to be charming and persuasive as well as gruff. During the last election Mitt Romney refused to appear on Letterman's show, but Christie went on and won over both Letterman and the audience with his self-deprecating sense of humor.
As for Christie's response to Sandy, consider the results. It made him the only GOP politician anywhere who has net positive approval from Republicans, Independents and Democrats. Christie has majority approval from white, blacks, Hispanic and women voters. Reagan won with the help of Reagan Democrats. Christie is the only likely candidate for President in 2016, on either side, who has demonstrated the potential to do likewise.
I agree with Joel that we have a much stronger range of candidates than the Democrats appear to for 2016. Hillary has her fans on the left but she has never won over Republicans. She lacks Obama's (or her husband's) personal charm and arguably lost in 2012 because of this lack. She can be made to lose again if the GOP nominates a candidate who is charming, smart, an engaging talker, media savvy and able to communicate empathy in a crisis situation. If those are the qualities that win in today's elections, and based on 2008 and 2012 I believe they are, Chris Christie is the front runner.