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 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, campaign director for New Jersey Environmental Federation, told the Times.
"There wasn't anything of significance that Stepien did without the governor being aware of it," added Pringle, who served on Christie's transition team after the federation endorsed him in 2009.
Such observations about the inner workings of the Christie team has many people questioning the governor's claim that he had no knowledge of last September's lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, which allegedly were ordered as retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. for his refusal to endorse Christie 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 efforts from his overall strategy.
"It's a campaign mentality," one unnamed official told the Times. "There was a sense that, 'We have to totally manage the message because there might be a bigger stage for him.'"
Ironically, a bigger stage is looking increasingly less likely for Christie because of the so-called bridge-gate scandal, which resulted in the firing of Stepien and Kelly.
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows public support for the governor slipping
. More people now say he is lying about the scandal than believe he is being honest about it.
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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