Chris Christie's first step toward rehabilitation? Woo N.J. Democrats. (+video)

In his state of the state address, Chris Christie sought to reestablish a bipartisan image. But overcoming Democrats' hostility is just one major obstacle to his national aspirations.

By , Staff Writer

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie attempts to get back to the nitty-gritties of governing after delivering the state of the state address Tuesday, a profoundly altered landscape – both personal and political – lies ahead of him.

Until now, Governor Christie has dominated this blue state convincingly, his bravado and brash Jersey style winning a wide cross section of the state’s Democrats – many of whom had even campaigned with the Republican governor as he cruised to a 22-point landslide win last November.

Christie’s national ambitions, in fact, have been predicated on his long-touted bipartisan appeal – which, combined with his no-nonsense and even impatient style, led his peers to elect him chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, a coveted role for any presidential aspirant trying to build an essential network of donors and campaign connections for next year’s arduous primary season.

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But last week’s revelations that his closest aides had closed access lanes to the George Washington Bridge – an act of political payback creating a traffic nightmare for the city of Fort Lee, all because its Democratic mayor had withheld an endorsement of the governor – has threatened both his ability to govern and his presumed plans to build a national network of support.

“Mistakes were clearly made,” the governor said Tuesday, to open his state of the state address.

But almost immediately, he emphasized again his bipartisan credentials – appealing to the state’s Democratic-controlled Assembly and Senate to “not allow the work that needs to be done to improve the people’s lives in New Jersey to be delayed for any reason.”

“Our record on this is clear,” Christie continued. “No state in this country has shown more bipartisan cooperation and governance over the last four years than in New Jersey – and our people are proud of it.”

But the legislature’s Democrats appear to be less than accommodating now – if not outright hostile. Leaders announced Monday that they are forming new investigative committees, as well as a special counsel, to investigate the governor’s office.

The US Attorney General is also scrutinizing the traffic scheme, and federal auditors are looking into Christie’s use of superstorm Sandy relief funds to make a tourism commercial that featured the governor as he ran for reelection last year.

Christie has promised full cooperation with all these investigations, but it is unlikely Democrats will be cooperating with him. In fact, now that his administration is mired in this scandal, those who had offered their bipartisan endorsements may now need to repair their relations with their own party.

“When the Democrats who endorsed Christie were endorsing someone who looked inevitable, their colleagues who didn’t, they kind of looked askance and shrugged,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York. “But those people now have to restore their credentials with their colleagues who didn’t defect, and didn’t endorse Christie. So it’s going to be harder for the governor to find allies.”

In his address, Christie emphasized education, asking legislators to increase both the length of the school day and year – a move opposed by the teachers union, with whom Christie has clashed with before.

But his brash and intimidating style, which had denuded the state’s Democrats the past four years, will not work as well as it had before.

 “Christie may run into more trouble because if he was a king, this wouldn't be so much of an issue,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “But since he’s a governor with limited powers, he’s going to need the legislature.”

 “But now the ‘sticks’ that he was using to coerce people,” she continues, “or any carrots he might still have – these are so much more limited now.”

But perhaps more significantly, Christie must move on without many who were in his core inner circle. He has already lost former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Kelly, who was always at his side before her leaked e-mails revealed her gleeful dirty trick: “Time for a traffic jam in Fort Lee.”

More significant, perhaps, is the loss of Bill Stepien, Christie’s long-time campaign adviser who had been hailed as one of the brightest young political operatives out there – the next Karl Rove, some said.

Indeed, Christie had tapped him to be a consultant for the Republican Governor’s Association, and to develop a network of donors and campaign networks as Christie prepared to launch his presumed 2016 bid.

“I think one of the biggest challenges for him is going to be the loss of his top level senior aides,” says Ms. Zaino. “I don’t think you can stress enough how much somebody like a Bill Stepien or a Bridget Kelly or any of these people who have already been fired or let go mean to a political figure. The loss of that close-knit team can be devastating for a national run, in particular, let alone the governing at a state level.”

Christie was elected to run the association because of his broad, bipartisan appeal. But though recent polls indicate the public is yawning through “Bridgegate,” the most important part of a presidential run, especially in the early stages, is having a top-notch ground game, supported by local leaders and their donor lists.

Indeed, Christie’s role as chairman is to help build the Republican Party throughout the states and help elect Republican governors – and, in effect, build up good will and raise funds and build the kind of political capital needed to win primaries.

“It doesn’t help to build the party in a state if the head of the Republican Governors Association comes for a visit, and the press starts asking him about investigations and allegations of corruption,” says Professor Sherrill. “That’s not the story that candidates for governor want to have.”

 “Are they going to tell Christie not to visit, are they going to distance themselves from him when he makes a visit?” Sherill continues. “It’s a very awkward situation.”

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