Chris Christie faces new bullying charges. Are voters paying attention? (+video)

Gov. Chris Christie's No. 2 denies charges by the mayor of Hoboken, N.J., that the administration used hurricane Sandy aid to leverage support for a development project.

By , Staff writer

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    New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to media and homeowners about the ongoing recovery from hurricane Sandy in Manahawkin, N.J. on Jan. 14. Governor Christie, whose administration is facing allegations about abusing power, came under fire again on Saturday when the mayor of Hoboken said storm relief was used to force her support for a development deal pushed by people close to the governor.
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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's Bridgegate scandal has expanded beyond traffic jams, as his lieutenant governor Monday fended off assertions that she made hurricane Sandy aid for the city of Hoboken contingent on the mayor's supporting a commercial development project.

With the US Attorney's office involved and at least 20 subpoenas issued to people connected with the Christie administration, there's little chance the scandal will blow over quickly. The question is whether ongoing developments – and media that can't seem to get enough of the juicy details – will hurt Governor Christie's future career in any permanent way, and whether Americans far away from the George Washington Bridge and the Sandy recovery will still care about the scandal, if Christie runs for president.

"Based on what has come out so far, it doesn’t seem likely to be a deal breaker," says John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. At this point, more than two years before the presidential election and with no certainty Christie will run, only political junkies are debating the scandal's potential effects. "It really depends if there are any solid new developments," he adds.

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On Monday, all the developments were related to allegations that Christie's administration tied hurricane aid to support for pet projects – claims his second in command firmly denied.

"I deny any suggestion made by Mayor [Dawn] Zimmer that there was ever any condition on the release of Sandy funds by me," Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said Monday at a news conference.

"Mayor Zimmer's version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined. Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false," Ms. Guadagno said.

In a statement Saturday, Christie's team noted that Hoboken had been approved for $70 million in federal aid and blamed the allegation on "partisan politics." They also criticized MSNBC as "a partisan network that has been openly hostile to Governor Christie and almost gleeful in their efforts attacking him."

Hoboken Mayor Zimmer, a Democrat, said over the weekend that Guadagno – along with other top officials – had pushed her to approve a development project that was "very important" to Christie, and said that if she did so, Sandy aid "would start flowing to you."

"I was directly told by the lieutenant governor – she made it very clear – that the … project needed to move forward or they wouldn't be able to help me," Zimmer told The Associated Press.

Following Guadagno's press conference, and her denials that such a conversation ever took place, Zimmer released a statement saying she was "genuinely disappointed" by the denials. "I met with the US Attorney for more than two hours yesterday, answered all their questions and turned over my journal in which I described my conversation with the lieutenant governor and Commissioner Constable," ZImmer said in the statement. "I stand by my word, remain willing to testify under oath, and I will continue to answer any questions asked of me by the US Attorney's office."

Already, some conservative columnists, including the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, have blamed the media's relentless focus on Christie's scandals on "liberal media bias."

"The bridge scandal started out as a test for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R)," wrote Ms. Rubin. "Now it has become a test for the media."

But despite the relentless media focus, the scandal so far doesn't seem to be affecting Christie himself all that much. In a Quinnipiac poll last week, just 22 percent of New Jersey voters said they believe Christie personally ordered the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, compared with two-thirds who don't believe he did. They characterize him as a "leader" as opposed to a "bully" by a margin of 14 percentage points. And his approval rating stands at 55 percent (with 38 percent who disapprove) – a drop from the 68 percent approval rating he enjoyed in the summer, but still not bad for a Republican governor of a Democratic state in the midst of a high-profile scandal.

But that poll was just of New Jersey voters.

A new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll released Monday, on the other hand, showed that among Americans across the country, 58 percent of those aware of the Bridgegate scandal do not believe Christie's statements that he knew nothing of the plan to tie up traffic. Just 32 percent said they do believe Christie was unaware of his aides' actions.
 
How much Americans care may depend, in large part, on how further implicated Christie himself is in the scandal, say political experts.

So far, the story hasn't had much impact on Americans' image of Christie outside of New Jersey, says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. But, he says, that could change if clearer evidence emerges that Christie was personally involved in either the lane closure decision or threats to withhold hurricane aid.
 
"If such evidence does emerge," says Professor Abramowitz in an e-mail, "it certainly has the potential to be damaging to Christie in New Jersey and nationally because it would undermine his image as a guy who governs in a bipartisan way and puts the interests of the public ahead of petty partisan considerations. And the Sandy aid story involves the issue that Christie built his national reputation on."

Without major developments that further implicate Christie, however, it's doubtful how much the scandal would affect any presidential aspirations Christie might have for the 2016 election. 

"Democrats will use it, Republican rivals will certainly use it, but on a scale of 1 to 10, so far, it’s maybe a 2 or a 3," says Professor Pitney, noting that the equivalent on the Democratic side is Benghazi and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's possible errors in handling it. "If there's nothing new [in either case], there's not a silver bullet," he says.

Monday, Pitney notes, is the 25th anniversary of President George H.W. Bush's inauguration – following the Iran-Contra scandal, which broke during the Reagan administration, with then-Vice President Bush also taking the heat.

If Iran-contra doesn’t take down a candidate, I don’t think Bridgegate will," says Pitney.

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