The Monmouth poll reports: “Currently, Gov. Christie’s job rating stands at 50% approve to 44% disapprove among New Jersey residents and 49% approve to 46% disapprove among the state’s registered voters. His approval numbers have dropped 9 points since the January Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press Poll which was taken just days after the state first learned that it was ‘time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.’ Christie’s job rating has now dropped by a total of 15 points since the scandal and it is off by 20 points from the high water mark of 70% recorded twelve months ago. In fact, the 49% voter approval number in the current poll is the first time Christie’s positive job rating has dipped below the 50% mark since 2011.” Republicans in the state have not rallied to his defense; he’s down from 89 percent to 77 percent approval. The public remains split on whether the bridge gambit was typical payback or unusual for his administration, and approval for his handling of the Sandy recovery is also down.

Caution is in order. This is one poll, and we’ve seen how dramatically popular opinion can shift. Moreover, New Jersey voters also think the legislature is overplaying this hand, so he may yet be the beneficiary of a backlash against grasping Democrats. But this poll is not good news for the governor. The precipitous decline in his approval  is potentially problematic on three levels, assuming the poll is not an outlier.

First, it suggests Christie is significantly damaged even as no evidence has emerged that he knew about the bridge scheme. Will he bounce back if and when he gets a clean bill of health? It’s not clear, and that’s unwelcome news for Christie supporters who figured that so long as nothing else came up he’d emerge as good as new. The stain of scandal, the uncertainty about his governing style and his judgment in staff hiring remain at issue.

Second, a large part of Christie’s appeal was electability. He was thought to be the one Republican Dems could learn to love. That seems not to be the case any longer. Without the big numbers he ran up on election night among women, independents, Hispanics and other traditional groups, he — like any other Republican with a partisan divide in support — will need a policy message to win voters back. Does he have one or will he have time to come up with one?

Third, rotten poll numbers will prolong the paralysis among donors. They’ll continue to kick the tires of other candidates and could find one they like and feel is less risky. They read the polls as closely as anyone, and these mostly establishment, pro-business Republicans will need plenty of evidence that he’s put this behind him if they are going to go all in.

Christie, therefore, has a steep hill to climb, however not an insurmountable one. Rather than continue to dwell on the bridge scandal and assure everyone he is still governing he might try, well, just governing. And today it seems he is taking steps to do just that.

In excerpts of his budget address released by his office, Christie is back to a  substantive message, announcing “a budget that is balanced, and, for the fifth year in a row, that requires no new taxes on the people of New Jersey.” In real terms, he has reduced spending. (“This budget, when you take out pension and health care costs and debt service, is $2.2 billion smaller than Fiscal Year 2008. Over the last five years, we have cut discretionary spending by $2.2 billion. This has been an era of fiscal restraint.”) He will be proposing further pension reforms, but no new taxes. He also offers what is perhaps the most crucial message for politicians of both parties:

Across the country, we are sacrificing university research, support for K-12 education, funding for the environment and energy and infrastructure of all kinds on the altar of these three things: pensions, health costs and debt. Due to these exploding entitlement costs, we are failing our taxpayers when we refuse to honestly address these problems and try to fool them into believing that choices do not need to be made. We are better than that. New Jersey is clearly better than that.

The warning about crowding out of government spending from ballooning entitlements is both warranted and a swipe at the Obama administration (which is also dangerously slashing defense spending). It offers common ground for Democrats — reform entitlements so government will have the funds to do things that people need and want. And it sets Christie apart from the strictly green-eye-shade Republicans for whom cutting all government is the highest purpose. He now should marry that message to a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda that differentiates him from Democrats to win over reform-minded conservatives.

Christie is in political hot water. But there is a way to get back his sea legs: smart governance, conservative reform and focusing on the needs of the poor and middle classes. It also will help him, if he still aims for the White House, to transition to a message that has national implications. Governing is the best medicine for him, and, regardless of what happens in 2016, he’ll want to go down as the New Jersey Republican governor who brought the state back from physical and economic storms.