Christie, aides plan comeback campaign after bridge flap

After a week of apologies, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his allies began laying the groundwork Wednesday for a comeback campaign.

In the days ahead, the embattled Republican governor and 2016 presidential hopeful will visit the Jersey Shore to focus on rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Sandy, jet to Florida to raise money from admiring donors, and hold a splashy inaugural party at Ellis Island.

The moves signal that Christie and his aides hope he has weathered the worst of the political squall after some of his top advisers were caught causing a days-long traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. Some believe the maneuver may have been retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J.

Christie, who claimed no knowledge of the September lane closures, cut loose two of his aides and apologized for their involvement in a news conference last week and in his State of the State address Tuesday.

On Wednesday, backers and confidants said it was time to look ahead. “He has already stood up and said, ‘I didn’t do this, I wasn’t part of this,’ ” said state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R). “That’s what he needed to do. I support the investigations, but that doesn’t mean state business should freeze.”

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A look at the traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge
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See how lane closures created a traffic snarlup on the George Washington Bridge.

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Documents related to alleged retribution by the Christie administration against mayors who did not endorse the New Jersey governor's reelection.

On Thursday morning, Christie will visit Manahawkin, N.J., an Ocean County town that was pounded by Sandy in 2012. A Christie official said he would tout the state’s work to rebuild housing and provide relief to the coastal community.

Christie’s return to the beach is a return to one of his chief political strengths. After working with the White House on recovery projects, Christie saw his poll numbers climb, and he eventually won reelection in November by a double-digit margin.

“He’s going to put his head down, continue to govern, and do the local things that got him all of the national recognition,” said Tony Carbonetti, a longtime Christie ally. “The leadership side is going to come through now more than ever.”

Democrats in Trenton, however, are skeptical that Christie will be able to regain his footing. After a new session of the state legislature opens Thursday, two new special committees will be granted subpoena power to continue probing the Fort Lee bridge controversy.

Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D), who is chairing one of the investigative panels, said he would request testimony from former aides Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Stepien, who were banished by Christie for their role in the bridge episode.

“There has been an abuse of power and the governor’s aides were clearly involved,” Wisniewski said. “There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. This is a serious process and we will start to press forward on Thursday.”

Christie was originally scheduled to visit Manahawkin last week, but the event was postponed as Christie dealt with the fallout related to the Fort Lee traffic snarl.

Christie’s stop will also be clouded by a federal inquiry into his administration’s post-Sandy promotional campaign. Democrats have criticized taxpayer-funded ads featuring Christie and his family, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently launched an audit.

Christie, who serves as this year’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will travel to Florida this weekend to boost the reelection campaign of Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is lagging behind former governor Charlie Crist, a Republican turned Democrat, in recent polls.

National Democrats have seized on Christie’s Florida swing, looking to tie the New Jersey governor’s troubles to Scott and raise questions about Christie’s viability as a presidential contender. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, will trail Christie as he makes his way across the Sunshine state raising money in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

Christie and Scott will not make a joint public appearance.

“Christie is headed to multiple media markets in a perennial swing state with competitive races up and down the ballot and isn’t holding any public events,” DNC spokesman Michael Czin wrote in an e-mail to reporters.

Mike Murphy, a GOP political consultant, said Christie’s stumbles in New Jersey won’t necessarily hurt him with Republicans nationally, and he expects him to remain a draw on the stump and among major donors.

“That blunt Northeast persona could carry him all the way to the White House or cause a mushroom cloud somewhere over New Hampshire,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

An early test will come Sunday when Christie appears at an afternoon reception hosted by Kenneth G. Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot. The event will be held at a private residence in Florida, and more than 100 heavy hitters from the financial community are slated to attend.

“I’m having to turn people away,” Langone said. “I’ve never seen a higher level of interest among people to come and meet the governor.”

The conclave will be the first meeting of Christie’s national fundraising circle since his reelection, Langone said.

Back in New Jersey on Tuesday, Christie will deliver his second inaugural address followed by a celebratory bash on Ellis Island. His brother, Todd Christie, and adviser Bill Palatucci will oversee the festivities.

Polls show Chris Christie has taken a hit for the traffic incident but still remains popular. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday showed Christie with 55 percent approval among New Jersey voters — a 13-point drop from his July approval level of 68 percent. In the new poll, 54 percent described Christie as a “leader” while 40 percent described him as a “bully.”

Christie’s national numbers have remained steady, according to an NBC News/Marist College poll released Wednesday. Nearly 70 percent of Americans have not changed their opinion of Christie since the scandal broke.

His place in the mix of potential 2016 president candidates is more volatile: Christie trails Hillary Rodham Clinton by 13 points in a prospective 2016 matchup, the poll found.

Robert Costa is a national political reporter at The Washington Post.
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