WASHINGTON -- The lights are on. The cameras are rolling. The flag pins are in place. And the topic of this unofficial Republican debate, taking place 30 months before the next presidential election, is whether Tesla Motors should be allowed to sell cars directly to the American consumer.
This used to be the stuff of smaller-scale scuffles, as Tesla fought state by state against franchise laws that restrict direct auto sales. But this month, the argument went national in a way that promises to turn Tesla into a key talking point for 2016.
It started a few weeks ago when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely GOP presidential contender, allowed new licensing rules to take effect banning automakers from selling cars directly to customers. Tesla, which has showrooms at two New Jersey shopping malls, faces the prospect of having to cease sales in the state.
In a furious blog post, Tesla CEO Elon Musk slammed Christie for cutting a "backroom deal" on what he likened to a mafia-style protection racket. But the governor was unapologetic.
"I have no problem with Tesla selling directly to customers, except it's against the law in New Jersey," Christie was quoted as saying at a town hall meeting on March 17.
Other Republican stars seized on Christie's stand. Last week U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida threw down the gauntlet in an interview with CNBC.