By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than three months after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie won over critics with his aggressive response to Superstorm Sandy, vaulting his popularity to a level most politicians dream of, his approval rating continues to top 70 percent.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released on Friday found 73 percent of voters in heavily Democratic New Jersey approve of the Republican governor's overall job performance, while his favorability rating was 70 percent.
In the first three years of Christie's term, his favorability hovered between 44 and 50 percent, and just before Sandy it was 48 percent, according to the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
"It appears that Christie's handling of Sandy has made the difference, since voters are not nearly as positive about other key issues," said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll and professor of political science at Rutgers. "If voters begin to focus on these issues instead of the Sandy recovery, we could see a change in the governor's overall ratings over the next few months."
On more specific issues, won only a 45 percent approval rating for his handling of the economy, and a 40 percent approval for his record on taxes. By contrast, 86 percent of voters approve of Christie's handling of Sandy.
The blunt-spoken Christie, who is seen as a strong contender if he decides to seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016, won praise for appearing to put the needs of New Jersey above political considerations after Sandy crashed into the state's coastline, ploughing down homes and wrecking boardwalks.
New Jersey voters cheered his embrace of Democratic President Barack Obama, who aggressively backed the state's request for emergency aide, and later Christie's angry rebuke of Republican lawmakers for holding up those funds.
The response from national Republicans was less adoring, with some saying Christie - who had spent months campaigning alongside Obama's Republican challenger, Mitt Romney - undermined Romney's chances in the final days of a close race.
The poll of 698 registered voters from January 30 to February 3. reported on here in this subsample has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
(Reporting By Edith Honan; Editing by Leslie Adler)