Bridge-gate: Why conservatives are now embracing Chris Christie

Chris Christie, embattled by Bridge-gate, is now welcome at CPAC 2014, the annual conservative bash, after getting no invitation last year. Perhaps a case of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

Bebeto Matthews/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during a ceremony to pass official hosting duties of next year's Super Bowl to representatives from Arizona, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 in New York. Governor Christie, under intense pressure over the ongoing 'Bridge-gate' scandal, was also embraced over the weekend by top Republicans appearing on Sunday talk shows.

After being snubbed last year, embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has been invited to speak next month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC – the biggest conservative confab of the year.

Governor Christie, under intense pressure over the ongoing “Bridge-gate” scandal, was also embraced over the weekend by top Republicans appearing on Sunday talk shows. On ABC News, Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin called Christie a “fantastic governor.” And both he and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana (appearing on CNN) said Christie should stay on as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Even some of the most conservative lights, who typically ridicule Christie as a “RINO” – a Republican in Name Only – have managed at times to come down on Christie’s side since Bridge-gate broke last month. Fox News host Sean Hannity has defended Christie’s use of hurricane Sandy relief money.

When the New York Times posted a story last Friday containing explosive allegations by a former Christie aide, talk radio host Mark Levin suggested some sympathy for Christie: “Do you believe Christie or NY Slimes?” Mr. Levin said on Facebook, with a link to the Times story.

And last month, when singer Bruce Springsteen mocked Christie, a diehard fan, conservative talker Rush Limbaugh called Mr. Springsteen “a low-rent character.” 

For conservative pundits, hints of pro-Christie feeling may be more a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” than a sign of genuine political affection, but as Christie fights for his political life, he’s not turning away any lifelines.

This circling of the wagons is “a sign that conservatives and Republicans may not be ready to give up on Christie just yet,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the Civic Forum PAC. “Frankly, the heat he is taking in the press as a result of Bridge-gate has endeared him to some conservatives.”

In addition, Christie knows that if he is going to survive the public opinion battle over Bridge-gate, “he’s going to need conservatives on his side,” O’Connell adds. “This is about mending fences on both sides.”

Bridge-gate exploded last month when e-mails surfaced showing Christie allies involved in creating a traffic jam last September near the George Washington Bridge, as apparent political payback against a local Democratic politician. Christie has denied involvement in the scheme, or any real-time knowledge of it.

The episode has cast doubt on Christie’s presidential prospects – a sharp turn of events for a one-time leading Republican light, who prided himself on his ability to work across the aisle in a blue state, and who won reelection last November with strong bipartisan support.

Now some political observers are questioning whether Christie will even finish his second term as governor. On Friday, a lawyer representing former Christie ally David Wildstein said that “evidence exists” Christie knew of the lane closures onto the bridge when they occurred in September. The statement contradicts Christie’s assertion last month in a two-hour press conference that he did not know about the lane closures in real time. So far, the evidence that Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer claims to have has not been presented.

But “if this charge proves true, then the governor must resign or be impeached,” the Newark Star Ledger wrote in an editorial Friday.

Christie’s invitation to appear at CPAC next month came to light over the weekend, and Christie has confirmed that he has accepted the invitation. CPAC is an annual conference put on by the American Conservative Union (ACU), and includes a cattle call for prospective Republican presidential candidates. A straw poll on the GOP 2016 nomination will be watched closely. This year’s CPAC will take place near Washington, D.C., March 6-8.

“We are very excited to announce that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will speak at CPAC 2014. At this year’s CPAC – and through our theme ‘ACU’s Golden Anniversary: Getting It Right for 50 Years’ – we will celebrate how conservatism has shaped our past and look to the future with excitement,” ACU chairman Al Cardenas said in a statement.

“This will be the year that conservatives begin pulling the nation back from the brink of Barack Obama’s disaster with a movement that inspires, unites, and discovers new solutions to our current challenges.”

Last year, Christie wasn’t invited to speak at CPAC, because his record wasn’t conservative enough, the ACU said. Just before the 2012 election, Christie infuriated conservatives when he worked happily and closely with President Obama after hurricane Sandy devastated the New Jersey shore. Christie did address CPAC earlier in 2012.

Though Christie is seen by some as a moderate Republican, he holds conservative positions on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

Another Republican who has defended Christie steadfastly during Bridge-gate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a moderate, has also had his differences with CPAC. On Sunday, Mr. Giuliani called for caution in judging Christie.

"So far, there's no evidence to suggest that he's not telling the truth. I think the governor knows the consequences. If he's lying, it's a really bad situation. If he's not lying, then something very unfair is being done to him. So let's see what happens," Giuliani said on CBS’s "Face the Nation."

The next shoe to drop in Bridge-gate may come in the form of documents from key members of the Christie administration subpoenaed by the New Jersey state legislature, and which are due to be turned over starting Monday, though some lawyers have received extensions.

Over the weekend, Christie couldn’t even catch a break in what should have been a shining moment in his governorship: seeing New Jersey host the Super Bowl. At a Super Bowl ceremony Saturday in Times Square, Christie was booed as he took the stage.

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