Has bridge scandal put an end to Gov. Christie's White House dream?

Until now, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie led the pack of Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls, and he was running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton. But the bridge scandal could end all that.

Louis Lanzano/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves City Hall Thursday in Fort Lee, N.J., after apologizing to Mayor Mark Sokolich. Gov. Christie fired one of his top aides and apologized repeatedly for the "abject stupidity" of his staff, insisting he had no idea anyone around him had engineered traffic jams to get even with a Democratic mayor.

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has any chance of winning political office beyond his current post, he’ll need to get by two groups of voters.

First, the New Jersey residents who elected him to the state’s highest office twice. And second, the Republicans around the country who decide the winners and losers in presidential caucuses and primary elections.

He may never run for statewide office again, but how Christie continues to do with those in his home state will be an important gauge of broader perceptions. It’ll certainly be the place where national political reporters congregate if he enters the 2016 presidential race as expected.

Right now – just a few days after a dirty-tricks political scandal forced him to fire two top aides, then spend a two-hour press conference asserting that he knew nothing about it – most people in New Jersey seem to be giving Christie the benefit of the doubt.

According to a Rasmussen poll released Friday, 55 percent of those surveyed in New Jersey just hours after his press conference Thursday still hold a favorable view of Christie, although that’s down 8 points from the 63 percent favorability he enjoyed when he easily won re-election in October. Sixty percent approve of the job he’s doing as governor of the Garden State.

But there’s danger for Christie here as well, Rasmussen reports: “Most New Jersey voters think it’s likely Governor Chris Christie was aware of the Fort Lee traffic lane closures before they happened and should resign if this is proven.”

The telephone survey “finds that 54 percent of Likely New Jersey Voters believe it’s at least somewhat likely that Christie was aware that traffic lanes onto the George Washington Bridge were being closed as retaliation for the mayor of Fort Lee’s refusal to support the governor’s reelection,” according to Rasmussen.

Nationally, Christie leads the pack of potential Republican presidential candidates by 6 percent, according to the average of five polls calculated by Real Clear Politics. (The others here are Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz, Rep. Paul Ryan, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Scott Walker, and Gov. Bobby Jindal.)

A CNN/ORC International poll in late December had a theoretical match-up of Christie and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton dead even –a slight 48-46 percent edge to Christie, within the survey’s margin of error.

"He performs particularly well among independents, winning nearly six in 10 in that key group," CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said at the time. "He also wins a majority of suburbanites and older voters, something that no other GOP hopeful [that was] tested was able to do against Clinton."

 "Christie doesn't win in the Northeast, although he does hold Clinton to a bare majority there, but he has a solid edge in the Midwest while playing Clinton to a draw in the South and West," Holland said.

But again, to win the nomination Christie would have to run the gantlet of primaries and caucuses, where conservative activists – in particularly, the large tea party faction – decide things.

Among other things, he would have to explain his buddy-buddy relationship with President Obama during Superstorm Sandy, which conservative critics at the time said helped defeat GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

More recently, Christie signed a new state version of the DREAM Act providing in-state tuition benefits to the children of illegal immigrants – hardly something that will endear him to most tea partiers.

A Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll last month gave Christie just 15 percent support among Republicans with a favorable view of the tea party.

Meanwhile, the scandal over the George Washington Bridge has piqued interest in Christie’s record as a politician, particularly a forceful style that some see as abrasive. In his press conference this week, he found it necessary to declare, “I am not a bully.”

In a Politico.com piece headlined “15 Chris Christie Controversies You Missed,” Olivia Nuzzi writes:

“Christie’s political career has been riddled with controversies big and small, most of which have been paid little attention by those outside the Garden State. And while perhaps none of these kerfuffles placed anyone in imminent danger quite like Bridgegate did, at least a few of them might have spelled the end of another, less media savvy politician’s career.”

Over at Slate, David Weigel starts his own list of questionable actions, inviting readers to “Help Me Build a Comprehensive List of Petty Chris Christie Scandals.”

“That's the thing about this story,” Weigel writes, “it changes the way Christie gets talked about.”

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