New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's top staffers prepared for his 2013 reelection campaign in a manner that suggested there was always an eye on the bigger prize, the White House, according to a number of former officials who spoke to The New York Times.
There were reportedly 100 swing towns, likened to mini-Ohios or mini-Floridas, and his team believed that winning them would bolster the idea that Christie would be the candidate with the broadest appeal in the 2016 presidential race.
The leading crew around Christie included Bill Stepien, his two-time campaign manager and deputy chief of staff, who went on to run the state's Republican Party and work for Christie in his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and Bridget Ann Kelly, who succeeded Stepien in the governor's office.
Stepien was apparently behind the idea that these 100 towns would get special attention, including state aid, help from the Port Authority, and town-hall-style sessions with Christie himself.
"With any governor, but especially with Chris Christie, it's impossible to separate politics from policy, but clearly Stepien was politics first, policy second," David Pringle, the campaign director for New Jersey Environmental Federation, who served on the transition team after the organization endorsed Christie in 2009, told the Times.
"There wasn't anything of significance that Stepien did without the governor being aware of it," he said.
Which has many questioning Christie's claims that he had no knowledge of last September's lane closures at the George Washington Bridge as an act of retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. for his refusal to endorse the governor's reelection bid.
Former Christie officials told the Times that as Christie began gaining national attention, as he did after Hurricane Sandy, it was harder to separate his local from overall strategy.
"It's a campaign mentality," said one "There was a sense that, 'We have to totally manage the message because there might be a bigger stage for him.' "
Ironically, as a result of some of those operations, that is looking increasingly unlikely. Christie has cut ties with Stepien and fired Kelly after the Bridge-gate scandal broke.
Meanwhile, his credibility is quickly slipping, with more Americans saying he is lying about the traffic jam scandal than saying he is being honest, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal
The survey also found that Christie's overall image has suffered a major blow; just 22 percent of Americans view him favorably, down from 33 percent in October, and 29 percent view him unfavorably, compared to 17 percent a few months ago.
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