TRENTON - Sometime before the Saturday Night Live appearance, before Shaq stopped by to say hello, before the second nod on Time's "most influential people in the world" list, the governor of New Jersey morphed into something else.

He became a bona fide 21st-century celebrity.

To America, Chris Christie isn't the governor of the 11th-biggest state, who ushered in a controversial benefits reform plan for public employees.

To America, he's the dude from Jersey who almost got into a fight on a boardwalk, as captured by the gossip-mongerers from He's the funnyman who wore a fleece on SNL's "Weekend Update." He's that guy who was interviewed on Extra! by Alec Baldwin's wife.

Some Republicans see him as the next Ronald Reagan: a conservative with natural charisma and an ability to woo Democrats and independents. But the Christie phenomenon is Reagan with a dash of Kardashian - a self-perpetuating fame machine that led Inside Edition to cover his jam-packed Tuesday news conference about his weight-loss surgery.

That was after Snooki tweeted an offer to be his workout buddy.

In the age of Twitter and 24-hour TV news, with celebrity pols like Arnold and Hillary and Anthony Weiner, fame and politics bleed together. Christie has capitalized on his celebrity, bringing him political success in Trenton and setting up a potential presidential run in 2016.

The rapid ascent of his fame is most evidenced by his iPhone contacts list. He has slept over at the home of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder who held his first-ever political fund-raiser for the governor. Last week, Christie put out a celebrity-filled spoof video about his Sandy fleece, and this month Jon Bon Jovi joined the Republican governor for a bill-signing.

Barbara Walters named him to her 10-most-fascinating-people list. Oprah Winfrey stopped by his house for an extended interview. Later this month Christie will host a full hour of NBC's Today. He has owned late-night, too, with a double segment on The Daily Show, a Jimmy Fallon duet of "Thunder Road," and a doughnut-eating gag with David Letterman.

Politically, this first-termer is a big deal. His post-Sandy tour of the Jersey Shore with President Obama dominated the end of the 2012 campaign. He has dined with Michelle Obama, who last week called him "terrific" and his family "wonderful." He was one of a few governors at the George W. Bush Library dedication in Texas, where he broke bread with Matt Lauer.

After he was lampooned by Conan O'Brien at the White House Correspondents Dinner last month, Christie told The Hill newspaper: "They didn't mention any other governors, did they? So it's good."

It was good to sit with Arianna Huffington at that dinner; at last year's event, it was likely even better to sit next to Modern Family's Sofia Vergara and party afterward with George Clooney.

Christie's celebrity is partly circumstantial. The wrath of Sandy would have put any chief executive on TV. But the Republican governor maximized his moment with emotional news conferences capped by a benefit-concert hug from his hero, liberal Bruce Springsteen.

Christie doesn't hide his famous friends. When he spoke of the hug, he name-dropped someone else, too. "When we got home, there was a lot of weeping because of the hug. And the president asked why. I said, 'Well, to be honest, I was the one doing the weeping,' " Christie said.

When Christie's wife, Mary Pat, set up a Sandy relief fund, Bono was put on the board. Christie recently noted that Bono now leaves voice mails for Mary Pat such as: "Hello, Beautiful. Just checking in on you."

"Other guys flirt with her - I don't know about a billionaire rock star, though," Christie said.

On Tuesday, Britain's Prince Harry will visit the devastated Jersey Shore - accompanied by Christie, of course. (The guv has already met the queen.)

His celebrity is stoked by his communications team, which packages clippings to build the Christie brand and feed the always-on cycle of infotainment. So when he killed a spider in front of schoolkids, it's not a governor who did it, it's Chris Christie who did it. A week later, the video had more than 100,000 views.

Democrats grouse that all this drowns out serious news: a relatively high jobless rate, Christie's veto of a minimum-wage hike, social views that don't jibe with the opinions of most New Jerseyans, the steady rise in property taxes.

So how does Barbara Buono - the little-known Central New Jersey Democrat expected to take on Christie this fall - cut through celebrity to make those points?

One liberal group tried a TV ad last week. Featuring a Letterman laugh, a Fallon smile, and the fleece Christie wore on SNL, the ad parses Christie's record.

"TV Chris Christie is funny," the ad says. "But there is nothing funny about what Republican Gov. Chris Christie is doing to our families."

That's debatable, but this isn't: Christie is keeping their families entertained. In 2013, that may be what's most important.