The blunt-talking Christie, an early favorite in the upcoming
Republican presidential sweepstakes, tried to put a brewing scandal
behind him on Thursday during an apologetic news conference in which
he announced the firing of a top aide who appeared to orchestrate
traffic jams as an act of political revenge.
For a day at least, Christie — whose in-your-face style has become
his political brand — was unusually contrite. During his two-hour
news conference in Trenton, Christie said he was "embarrassed and
humiliated" by the episode, which he said he had not known about.
To Christie's critics, the notion that his staff would order up lane
closures on the busy George Washington Bridge to get back at a New
Jersey mayor who refused to endorse Christie during last year's
elections seemed to match their caricature of him as a bully with a
But by late Thursday, as Christie was visiting Fort Lee Mayor Mark
Sokolich to apologize in person, Republican and Democratic
strategists were predicting that if Christie runs for president as
many expect, voters and potential donors largely would forget the
bridge scandal by the time the 2016 campaign begins in earnest next
That could change, the strategists said, if the various inquiries
into the incident by federal prosecutors, the Port Authority of New
York & New Jersey and a U.S. Senate panel manage to keep the story
The scandal could dent Christie's carefully cultivated image as a
get-things-done leader who puts the people ahead of politics — an
image enhanced by last year's easy re-election in heavily Democratic
But without proof that Christie lied or knew that an aide was behind
the lane-closure plan, Republicans said it is unlikely to be a
factor by the time voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina
begin to weigh in on the presidential race in early 2016.
"How many more things are going to happen in the world between now
and January 2016, when the (primary) voting starts? The idea that
voters are going to remember a lane closure in New Jersey — I don't
believe it," said Rich Galen, a Washington-based Republican
Some prominent Democrats agreed that so far, Christie did not appear
to have suffered long-term political damage.
"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise,
he lives to fight another day," David Axelrod, a former political
adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter.
In the short term, however, strategists said the scandal could give
pause to some Republican donors who have begun evaluating the
party's potential White House contenders, leading them to wonder
what other surprises might come with a Christie candidacy.
A recent book on the 2012 campaign, "Double Down," by journalists
Mark Halperin and John Heilmann, said Christie was rejected as a
potential vice presidential candidate by Republican presidential
nominee Mitt Romney because Romney aides thought there were too many
possible controversies in Christie's background.
If Christie becomes a national candidate, every aspect of his record
in New Jersey will be under intense scrutiny by journalists and
political foes from both parties, said Katon Dawson, former chairman
of the South Carolina Republican Party.
"Good luck with that, Governor Christie. This is just the beginning
of 2016," Dawson said.
"THREE APOLOGIES; THEN GO HOME"
Dawson agreed that as long as there is not much more to the bridge
scandal, Christie should remain well-positioned to make a run for
the White House.
"If it's a single incident that the governor handles properly, he'll
move on. But if it's chapter one of 10 chapters, this won't be the
last apology. You get about three apologies, and then you have to go
home," Dawson said.
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Some recent opinion polls have shown Christie leading other
potential Republican contenders for 2016. A Reuters/Ipsos tracking
poll in November had him ahead of Wisconsin Representative Paul
Ryan, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul,
David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New
Jersey, said Christie always has walked a fine political line in his
home state because of his confrontational style with political foes.
"He's made his national image as a straight-talking leader who
doesn't play petty politics, and this particular event looks like
the worst kind of petty politics," Redlawsk said.
"It's one thing to be tough on your critics. It's another to be
doing things to people who don't deserve it. That's what a bully
does, and in this case the people of Fort Lee did not deserve this,"
Galen said Christie's image as a bully has been somewhat endearing
to many voters.
"He is a bully, and he just got elected with 60 percent of the vote
in a Democratic state," Galen said. "Given a choice of a bully or a
wimp as commander-in-chief, most people would go for the bully."
But Steve Grubbs, a former Republican state chairman in Iowa, said
any sign that Christie was directly involved in the bridge incident
would make him "a tough sell" in Iowa, which will hold one of the
first contests in the state-by-state nominating process for
president in 2016.
"Iowa does not have a history of vindictive politics. There is sort
of an expectation that our better angels will prevail when
statesmanship is needed," Grubbs said.
If he seeks the Republican nomination for president, Christie's
bigger problem could be with Republicans who are part of the Tea
Party movement and other voters who do not believe he is
Such voters are a particularly powerful voice in the nominating
process, and many are suspicious of Christie's record in New Jersey — including his recent approval of a bill that provides in-state
college tuition discounts to the children of undocumented workers.
Some conservatives also remain unhappy with the famous hug and words
of support that Christie gave Obama during the aftermath of the
Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just before the presidential election.
"If Christie shows up in New Hampshire," home to another early
nominating contest, "he's going to have his detractors, but it's
going to be driven by ideology," said former New Hampshire state
Republican chairman Fergus Cullen. "It's not going to be driven by
(any controversy over) a bridge in New Jersey."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)
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