By Steve Peoples
Chris Christie may have been nearly 200 miles away, but his struggles in New Jersey buzzed through the hallways of a Washington hotel this week as hundreds of Republican officials gathered to debate the GOP’s future.
Party activists from Mississippi to Massachusetts defended Christie’s leadership, insisting this is no time to write his political obituary. But they also said it’s far too soon to grant him presidential front-runner status.
Christie’s popularity has fallen in recent weeks amid revelations that senior members of his administration helped create massive traffic jams last fall, apparently to exact political retribution against a Democratic New Jersey mayor. Additional allegations of political bullying have emerged as federal prosecutors and Democratic legislators probe the matter. Four people close to Christie have been fired or have resigned.
A roadblock for a possible presidential run? More like a speed bump, one activist said Friday. It could even help Christie among party conservatives by turning him into a martyr, said another. But he still faces resistance among some of those conservatives.
A senior Christie adviser at the Republican National Committee meeting suggested the high-profile governor has already overcome the worst of his challenges, although federal prosecutors have subpoenaed his recent campaign and Democrats are pressing an abuse-of-power investigation.
“Absolutely,” adviser Bill Palatucci said when asked if Christie is through the toughest stretch. “It’s a Democratic state — the Legislature is controlled by the Democrats — so I think they will attempt to drag it out as long as they can. That being said, the governor is very determined to continue his job as governor and do the things that he talked about in his inauguration speech.”
The Republicans who gathered for the meeting, which wound up Friday, largely agreed that Christie has time to recover politically before the next presidential election, should he decide to run.
“We’ve got lots of people who can run and I think Christie is one of them,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican national committeeman from Mississippi. “The last month hasn’t been very good, but we’re a long ways off from when people are going to be making those sorts of decisions.”
Massachusetts committeeman Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, described Christie’s challenges as “maybe a speed bump” being “overblown” by the media.
“The bottom line is that Chris Christie is still, if not the biggest, one of the biggest draws in our party. He’s still one of the most popular Republican governors,” Kaufman said.
Even some of the more conservative Republican activists — including those who have had concerns about Christie — downplayed the political impact of the New Jersey investigations. But that doesn’t mean he is suddenly popular with the GOP’s most passionate voters, who still bristle at the memory of his embrace of President Barack Obama in the days after Superstorm Sandy.
Some social conservatives also are upset that Christie didn’t work harder to block same-sex marriage in New Jersey and that he recently signed legislation giving in-state tuition rates to New Jersey immigrants in the country illegally.
“If he’s innocent, and I think he is, I think it’s a big to-do about nothing,” Republican national committeeman Steve Scheffler, of Iowa, said of the New Jersey investigations. “I think he’s got some serious challenges in trying to convince the base that he’s going to be a solid conservative and not somebody who’s going to play too much ball with the Democrats.”
Others predicted that Christie’s problems could actually help him with skeptical conservatives should he become portrayed as a victim of an overly aggressive mainstream media.
“The consensus feeling is that he’s been unfairly attacked,” former Michigan GOP Chair Saul Anuzis said. “He could very easily become a martyr.”
But Christie also faces pressing legal issues. His re-election campaign and the state Republican Party have less than two weeks to comply with subpoenas from federal prosecutors. His campaign has retained a Washington law firm.
The subpoenas from the U.S. attorney’s office are evidence of an escalating criminal investigation into allegations that Christie’s aides created traffic jams in a town with a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse his re-election campaign. Earlier in the month, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey said his office was reviewing the matter “to determine whether a federal law was implicated.”
A state legislative committee also has issued subpoenas for correspondence from 20 Christie associates and organizations, due by Feb. 3.
Christie, meanwhile, is showing no signs that his troubles back home will affect plans to broaden his national network as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
The group announced this week that Christie will raise money in Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut and Utah in the coming months. The release of a vague travel schedule followed a call from recent Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli that Christie resign from the post.
Palatucci, said it’s “wildly premature” to speculate on how the scandal will affect Christie’s political future. He also dismissed the significance of polls suggesting the governor’s popularity has fallen dramatically.
“Polls bounce around,” he said. “You take them for what they are — which is a snapshot in time.”