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Mr. Christie’s larger-than-life New Jersey persona now comes with an asterisk. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
Mr. Christie’s larger-than-life New Jersey persona now comes with an asterisk. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Joanna Slater

Tough guy Christie losing stature over ‘Bridgegate’ Add to ...

Chris Christie earned the admiration of New Jersey voters by picking fights and talking tough. He is not afraid to tell people to shut up, to dismiss an argument as a “pile of garbage” or to label someone an idiot.

Mixing confrontation and charisma, the Republican governor emerged as “the most compelling personality the state has produced since Tony Soprano,” in the words of one local political columnist.

But something happened on the way to the national arena: The man who appeared to be a political juggernaut has stumbled. Now Mr. Christie is under fire for his handling of a mess involving a traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge and his spending of relief funds from Hurricane Sandy – and the furor looks set to continue.

Last week, e-mails showed that a senior aide to Mr. Christie had orchestrated a week-long snarl at the world’s busiest bridge as a form of political payback. Mr. Christie, 51, apologized for the debacle, denied he had any prior knowledge of it and fired the aide responsible. He described himself as “humiliated and embarrassed” by the episode.

The scandal, however, shows no signs of going away. On Monday, New Jersey state legislators formed a new panel with the power to issue subpoenas in order to investigate the affair, which now has its own tabloid moniker: “Bridgegate.”

Meanwhile, a new set of e-mails released Monday indicated that Mr. Christie’s team had aggressively wooed local mayors to secure endorsements for the governor’s re-election campaign last fall, with repercussions possible for those who declined. One who refused to support Mr. Christie saw all of his meetings with senior state officials cancelled.

The governor is also facing heat on another front: Federal auditors are probing whether he misused relief funds after Hurricane Sandy to produce tourism advertisements touting the state’s recovery that featured Mr. Christie and his family. The ads ended with the tagline “Stronger than the Storm.”

More broadly, what had been one Mr. Christie’s biggest assets – his larger-than-life New Jersey persona – now comes with an asterisk. Mr. Christie is “the first guy who has been willing to let his Jersey show as a politician,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. But “even New Jerseyans are starting to doubt how he will play in Peoria,” he added, referring to the Illinois city as a stand-in for the rest of the country.

Mr. Murray pointed to the latest poll from his institute, which was conducted between Jan. 10 and 12. The survey showed that Mr. Christie’s job approval rating, while still high, dropped from 65 per cent to 59 per cent over the past month. Less than half of those polled said that Mr. Christie had the right temperament to be president – a reversal from this past September, when a majority said he was a good fit for the White House.

A couple of months ago, Mr. Christie was on top of the world. He won a landslide re-election victory in New Jersey with more than 60 per cent of the vote. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine for the second time in a year. (The cheeky headline: “The Elephant in the Room”, a play on the symbol of the Republican Party and Mr. Christie’s girth.)

Mr. Christie seemed to be exactly what the Republican Party needed: a potential presidential candidate who could attract large numbers of women and Hispanic voters. During last fall’s campaign, he emphasized his bipartisan credentials and his leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the state’s coastline.

Some experts said Mr. Christie sought to trump the all-time margin of victory recorded in a New Jersey gubernatorial race, touched in 1985 by his mentor Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of the state. Behind the scenes, his staff had engaged in a bid to secure endorsements from Democratic officials to bolster Mr. Christie’s claims of bipartisanship.

For instance, Mr. Christie’s staff wanted an endorsement from Steven Fulop, the Democratic mayor of Jersey City, the state’s second-largest metropolis. Mr. Fulop declined to support Mr. Christie and informed the governor’s office of his decision on July 18. Within an hour, senior state officials began calling to cancel a day of previously planned meetings with Mr. Fulop. The mayor repeatedly tried to reschedule the discussions but heard nothing in response.

Such tactics are gentle compared to the treatment meted out to others who have crossed Mr. Christie, according to news reports. A former governor who displeased Mr. Christie found that his security detail had been eliminated and his cousin fired from a post in state government, The New York Times reported. A professor who cast a deciding vote on a plan to redraw the state’s electoral map – a plan which Mr. Christie opposed – had research funding slashed by the governor, the newspaper said.

Mr. Christie has denied that his approach is anything out of the ordinary. “Politics ain’t bean bag, everybody who engages in politics in this country knows that,” he said during a two-hour press conference last week. “I am who I am, but I am not a bully.”

Barring further revelations, experts said that Mr. Christie’s national stature has been dented by the scandal but not beyond repair. “It has dragged him down,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University. “He’s now on the defensive.” If stories of political retribution continue to emerge, it will undermine his image as “this bipartisan, out-of-politics person.”

Follow on Twitter: @jslaternyc

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