GOP Leaders Dodge 'Toxic' Christie in Wake of Bridge Scandal

Image: GOP Leaders Dodge 'Toxic' Christie in Wake of Bridge Scandal

Friday, 07 Feb 2014 07:51 AM

By Melissa Clyne

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Republican politicians are engaging in a game of dodgeball when it comes to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

As the embattled Garden State leader travels the country on a dual mission — to raise money for the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie is president, and help do the same for fellow Republicans — a carefully choreographed dance is underway, says Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is also the Lone Star State's presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, "chose to be elsewhere" during Christie's visit there this week, as did outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Barabak said. Equally telling, Barabak said, was that the events were private, with no press coverage allowed.

Urgent: Do You Like Chris Christie? Vote Now

"The Texas jaunt follows a Christie trip last month to Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott, locked in a tough re-election fight, sneaked into a similar fundraiser through a back entrance rather than having his picture taken alongside New Jersey's scandal-stricken governor."

This is Christie's new reality since the bridge-gate scandal erupted. The details are under investigation, but at least two Christie aides — whom he fired — orchestrated the closings of several commuter lanes on the George Washington Bridge as an act of political payback. It created horrific traffic jams in Fort Lee, N.J., at the entrance to the busy bridge connecting North Jersey and New York City.

Christie and his GOP colleagues cannot avoid the press forever, opines Barabak, especially if Christie plans to remain a contender for his party's 2016 presidential nomination.

"Surely this is not the way Christie and his strategists envisioned his presidential campaign rollout, sneaking in and out of events to avoid the probing of reporters or photographing of fellow Republicans in unhappily close proximity," the LA Times columnist writes.

"At some point, to seriously vie for his party's nomination, Christie will have to step out from behind those closed doors, face the scrutiny of reporters and show that members of his own party want more than just the money he can raise for them in private."

As the recently seated chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is traveling cross-country to raise millions for his party, and the furor stirred by a politically motivated traffic jam back home is making his financial mission a stealth affair.

The Dallas County Republican Party said it didn't know where Christie was going, and the RGA wouldn't say.

Christie once strolled the Jersey Shore's boardwalks welcoming YouTube confrontations with rowdy constituents. Now, he's ferried in limousines to closed-door fundraisers, eluding curbside reporters' questions as he raises money to help Republicans compete in the races of 36 governors.

"It shows how toxic Mr. Christie is, not just in Texas but across the country," Gilberto Hinojosa, Texas Democratic Party chairman, said in Dallas as he arrived to spotlight the undisclosed fundraising meetings.

Christie, 51, will attend another "closed-press" fundraiser for the RGA in Illinois on Feb. 11. However, he will address the Economic Club of Chicago at an event open to reporters.

This was supposed to be Christie's debut as a national political celebrity, the popular Jersey-strong voice offering the Republican Party a new choice for the White House in 2016.

His ability to carry out his fundraising role and also regain the personal standing he held in opinion polls heading into the presidential election season depends on the outcome of investigations testing the governor's assertion that he had no hand in the George Washington Bridge traffic snarl.

"We'll find out the facts in time, and if they don't prove anything new/bad linking it right to Christie, he'll become a bit of a GOP martyr to D.C. media overkill," Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, told Bloomberg by email. "He'll still be a major candidate. That said, if any proof appears clearly making him a liar, get the fork ready as he'll be done."

In a party searching for new leaders, Christie won re-election as governor by a 22 percentage-point margin in a state that hasn't supported a Republican for president since 1988. In December, he stood statistically even with Hillary Clinton, the Democrat most likely to lead her party in 2016, in potential matchups tested in polls.

Christie was favored among 48 percent of voters and Clinton by 46 percent in a mid-December poll by CNN and ORC International.

One month later — barely one week into the controversy over what his appointees did to commuters in New Jersey last fall — Clinton led Christie by 13 points in a Jan. 12-14 NBC/Marist poll: Clinton with 50 percent compared with Christie at 37 percent.

On Jan. 9, Christie stood for almost two hours at a news conference in Trenton offering a public apology and 19,347-word explanation that he hadn't known beforehand about lane closures leading to the bridge that snared traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., for four days in September.

Some say Christie can weather this political storm.

Until "this bridge incident, Gov. Christie had gotten pretty high marks on both sides of the aisle for being an excellent and effective governor," said Al Cardenas, a former head of the Republican Party of Florida and now chairman of the American Conservative Union.

"Investigations are going on and Democrats are looking under every rock. The GOP has taken the governor at his word. As such, he should stay where he is unless another shoe drops. It doesn't help with fundraising, but his departure would be worse. And unfair."

Urgent: Do You Like Chris Christie? Vote Now

Bloomberg contributed to this report.

 

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