For New Jersey governor Chris Christie, the road to the White House in 2016 has suddenly become a little bumpy — but it’s not closed.
The blunt-talking Christie, an early favourite in the upcoming Republican presidential sweepstakes, tried to put a brewing scandal behind him during an apologetic news conference in which he announced the firing of a top aide who appeared to orchestrate traffic jams as an act of political revenge.
For a day at least, Christie — whose in-your-face style has become his political brand — was unusually contrite. During his two-hour news conference in Trenton, Christie said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the episode, which he said he had not known about.
To Christie’s critics, the notion that his staff would order up lane closures on the busy George Washington Bridge to get back at a New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse Christie during last year’s elections seemed to match their caricature of him as a bully with a temper.
But by late Thursday, as Christie was visiting Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich to apologise in person, Republican and Democratic strategists were predicting that if Christie runs for president as many expect, voters and potential donors would largely forget the bridge scandal by the time the 2016 campaign begins in earnest next year.
That could change, the strategists said, if various inquiries into the incident by federal prosecutors, the Port Authority,& and a US senate panel manage to keep the story alive.
The scandal could dent Christie’s carefully cultivated image as a get-things-done leader who puts the people ahead of politics — an image enhanced by last year’s easy re-election in heavily Democratic New Jersey.
But without proof that Christie lied or knew that an aide was behind the lane-closure plan, Republicans said it is unlikely to be a factor by the time voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina begin to weigh in on the presidential race in early 2016.
“How many more things are going to happen in the world between now and January 2016, when the (primary) voting starts? The idea that voters are going to remember a lane closure in New Jersey — I don’t believe it,” said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist.
Some prominent Democrats agreed that so far, Christie did not appear to have suffered long-term political damage.
“Unless a smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day,” David Axelrod, a former political adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter.
In the short term, however, strategists said the scandal could give pause to some Republican donors who have begun evaluating the party’s potential White House contenders, leading them to wonder what other surprises might come with a Christie candidacy.
A recent book on the 2012 campaign, Double Down, by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilmann, said Christie was rejected as a potential vice-presidential candidate by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney because Romney aides thought there were too many possible controversies in Christie’s background.
If Christie becomes a national candidate, every aspect of his record in New Jersey will be under intense scrutiny by journalists and political foes from both parties, said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
“Good luck with that, Governor Christie. This is just the beginning of 2016,” Dawson said.
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