Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, left, shakes hands with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the presidential campaign in Delaware, Ohio, on Oct. 10, 2012. (Jim Watson/Getty)

SALT LAKE CITY – Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney strongly defended New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s role in the bridge traffic scandal engulfing his administration, saying the governor’s presidential campaign prospects are “not hurt by the controversy.”

Romney, in an interview with The Washington Post here late Friday night, said he has e-mailed with Christie since the bridge scandal broke last week to compliment his handling of the episode. Romney said he told Christie in one note that “he must be frightening a lot of people because they’re giving it a lot of attention.”

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, said Christie has shown forceful leadership in the days since internal e-mails and text messages revealed that Christie’s aides and political associates orchestrated a massive traffic jam in Fort Lee, N.J., as an apparent act of political retribution.

“I think Chris has handled this in a very effective way,” Romney said. “A member of his administration did something that he was unaware of and that he found reprehensible. He faced the American people for two hours, took their questions. He dismissed people who were responsible. He took personal responsibility. That’s what a leader does.”

Romney continued, “I think he’s handled this kind of setting in a way very different than people who are not leaders, and I think the American people are pining for leaders who will take responsibility, who will answer questions openly, who will make sure that there’s accountability for the individuals who’ve done something wrong and speak in a blunt, straightforward manner. I think Chris is not hurt by the controversy. I think as time goes on, he’ll be seen as a strong leader.”

Romney, who insisted that he would not run for president again, said Christie remains a “very strong potential nominee” for the Republican Party in 2016. He said he believes the same distinction also applies to Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), his vice presidential running-mate in 2012, as well as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“There are a number of Republican leaders who I think could be very strong, but Chris is certainly one of them,” Romney said. He’s demonstrated a capability of leadership and electability which is impressive.”

Romney’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview following Friday night’s world premiere of “MITT,” a new documentary film that offers an up-close look at his and his family’s journey through the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns.

Romney’s public defense of Christie – a key surrogate for Romney in 2012 – is significant considering that some of Romney’s biggest campaign fundraisers have been publicly bashing Christie this week.

With Christie in Florida this weekend raising money for Gov. Rick Scott’s reelection, Brian Ballard, Romney’s 2012 Florida finance chairman, said he still harbored ill feelings about Christie for his embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy in the final days of the campaign.

“The guy, as a person, is horrific,” Ballard said of Christie to the Miami Herald. Ballard estimated that “90 percent” of major Romney fundraisers outside of New Jersey and New York “wouldn’t touch Christie with a 10-foot pole right now.”