Embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his top advisers are reassuring allies that he will survive the turmoil over a bridge scandal that has badly damaged his standing in the polls, believing he will emerge as an even stronger potential presidential candidate in the end.
Members of Christie’s inner circle said the developing field of Republican contenders is relatively weak, lacking a presumptive front-runner after consecutive defeats in national elections. The unsettled landscape gives Christie ample time and opportunity to bounce back, they said.
But Democrats and some Republicans remain skeptical that Christie will be able to weather the political storm and remain a formidable force.
Christie aides announced Monday that the governor plans to travel to six states this spring to host events for GOP candidates and for the Republican Governors Association (RGA), which he chairs. The stops in Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Utah, Connecticut and Massachusetts underscore Christie’s national ambitions, which have been fueled by encouragement from influential Republican officials and donors.
Christie has been under fire for weeks after documents showed that key aides had orchestrated four days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., where the Democratic mayor had declined to endorse Christie’s reelection. The incident spawned additional accusations of heavy-handed tactics used by Christie appointees against opponents, including allegations that federal hurricane relief money was withheld as political punishment.
Christie’s team has been laying the groundwork for the six-state RGA swing for weeks, promising Republican associates in conference calls and closed-door huddles that he has not discarded his long-planned playbook for the year. The aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering stands in contrast to Christie’s public statements about the bridge controversy, in which he has struck a humble, conciliatory tone and vowed to focus his energy on New Jersey issues.
Bill Palatucci, Christie’s closest adviser, touted the governor’s travel plans at last week’s Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington.
“To a man and a woman, everyone there offered his or her continued support,” Palatucci said. “I spent most of my time coordinating visits with people, talking about fundraisers and get-togethers. The requests for him to come have not waned.”
Christie’s goal is to bring in more than $100 million by the end of 2014 for the RGA, which hopes to expand GOP control beyond the 29 states now in Republican hands.
Christie is also considering fundraisers for Senate and House candidates and state parties. The bulk of the travel will not begin until after he gets through Sunday’s Super Bowl, which will be played in East Rutherford, N.J., and his annual state budget proposal.
“As RGA chairman, Christie has a perch and a presence,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. “He will have plenty of responsibility and invitations. Given the controversy, though, that energy may be tempered as he functions in that role. That gravitational pull that has surrounded him for years is going to be tested.”
In private, Christie has brushed off suggestions that he should slow down his travel and further shake up his political operation after firing Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, and Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, for their involvement in the traffic flap. Instead, Christie and his loyalists have drawn closer, frustrated by the barrage of national media attention.
Palatucci and longtime strategist Mike DuHaime remain Christie’s gatekeepers. Former Christie law partner Jeff Chiesa, who was appointed to briefly serve in the Senate last year, is another integral player, as is Russ Schriefer, the brains behind Christie’s carefully crafted commercials and videos.
In an interview Friday, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he expects Christie to get through the scandal with his reputation intact.
“There are a number of Republicans who have real potential,” Romney said, citing his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), along with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, among others. “Chris is certainly part of that group. He is one of our party’s winners, a real leader, and his straightforward style has appeal.”
The challenge for Christie is convincing Republican power brokers that he has endured little long-term damage.
“The next issue to watch for Christie is backwash,” said Ed Cox, chairman of the New York GOP. “Democrats smell blood in the water, so they’ll keep coming, and dealing with that will not be easy. But this is his time to do what he needs to do since a lot of Republican governors are absorbed in their own campaigns. I don’t think he’ll be in the bunker.”
Appearances in early primary states are also possible, Christie aides said.
One New Hampshire Republican consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential deliberations, said Christie’s camp has been in touch about a potential summer visit.
Christie is also friendly with Terry Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, which will hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses in 2016. Iowa GOP operative David Kochel said Christie has a strong chance because the state “has a tradition of supporting more mainstream candidates, going to back to George H.W. Bush” in 1980.
Christie’s planned road trips also carry risks, however, as he found out this month when he went to Florida to campaign for Gov. Rick Scott (R). He was trailed by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and a crowd of protesters throughout the journey.
Some Republicans have also been critical of Christie’s plans to continue stumping for the RGA. Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, who lost a race for governor last year, said on CNN’s “Crossfire” last week that Christie should step down as RGA head because he “does not serve the goals of that organization by staying as chairman.”
Christie’s standing among Republicans has dropped sharply since the bridge scandal broke. A Fox News poll released last week showed that 41 percent of Republicans think Christie has a strong future in the party, a 22-point fall from the previous survey.
But Ken Langone, the Home Depot co-founder who hosted Christie at his home in North Palm Beach, Fla., this month, said the New Jersey governor will find many backers eager to boost him. A Christie super PAC is in the works.
“A lot of people are ready to bundle for him,” Langone said. “As long as nothing comes out of these investigations, they will be there.”
Conservative activists are taking a wait-and-see approach to Christie’s multi-state stumping, applauding his fight-on spirit but worried that mounting accusations and subpoenas from New Jersey Democrats will overshadow the candidates Christie is aiming to support.
“There is an old saying among conservatives, ‘You never really cared much for Nixon until Watergate,’ ” said Richard Viguerie, a longtime conservative organizer. “A lot of conservatives don’t like how the left has jumped on him. But this idea that we’re once again going to get behind a big-government Republican like Christie is disturbing.”
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said the traffic scandal “raises questions about how inevitable Christie is. People who might have committed to him early may decide to delay, and you will see Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul start to show people that they are at Christie’s level.”
Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, warned that Christie should not take the overtures from the “political pundit class and the GOP donor class” too seriously.
“The media-donor class view on Christie has always been unrealistic,” he said. “In the real world, he’s one of several possible candidates. I thought he should have run in 2012, when he would have been better than Romney and no one was messing with traffic.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.