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Christie working to repair image in wake of bridge scandal

Gov. Chris Christie gestures as he addresses a large gathering Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Middletown, N.J., during a town hall meeting. Christie returned to Republican-controlled Monmouth County on Thursday for his first town hall since private emails revealed a political payback scandal in which his associates ordered traffic lanes closed, causing lengthy backups. But the scandal didn't come up. Instead, the 51-year-old Republican heard from residents who have not returned to their homes since the 2012 storm.

Mel Evans/AP

Weeks after a scandal erupted that threatens to derail his presidential ambitions, Chris Christie plunged into a friendly crowd and launched a bid to change the subject.

Pacing a room in shirtsleeves and a tie, the governor of New Jersey sought to reclaim his image as a straight-talker in a public forum on Thursday, fielding questions from local voters for nearly two hours.

The event was Mr. Christie's first unscripted appearance since last month, when e-mails emerged showing that one of his aides had orchestrated a traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge, which connects Manhattan and New Jersey.

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The snarl was an apparent act of political retribution targeting the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., the town next to the bridge – and the controversy has already generated investigations by state lawmakers and federal prosecutors. The political firestorm has also damaged Mr. Christie, who had been considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. He has maintained that he was unaware of the scheme hatched by his staff.

"He's a bit in limbo right now," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. "He's waiting to see like everyone what these investigations dig up."

In the weeks since the explosive e-mails were released, Mr. Christie has been a shadow of his usually voluble and pugnacious self, sticking to his prepared remarks and staying as far from the spotlight as his duties allow.

That began to change on Thursday, when he entered a veterans' hall packed with cameras to the strains of a Bruce Springsteen song. The event took place in a largely Republican area on the New Jersey coast, and was billed as a town hall focused on recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy.

No questioner asked about the bridge scandal, which now goes by its own moniker, "Bridgegate." But it hovered over the proceedings. At one point, a local veteran rose and said he had a request for the governor – please destroy all your Bruce Springsteen CDs. (Not long after the controversial e-mails were released, Mr. Springsteen appeared in a lacerating parody on late-night television where he reworked the lyrics of his hit Born to Run to focus on the Fort Lee traffic jam).

Mr. Christie, a devoted fan who has attended more than 100 of Mr. Springsteen's concerts, laughed. "You are probably giving me wise, sage counsel that I should accept," he said. "But my heart keeps telling me not to."

During the town hall, Mr. Christie tried to emphasize his non-partisan approach to governing. He singled out the mayor of a nearby coastal town, noting how the two men worked together in the hurricane's aftermath. The fact that they belong to different political parties "hasn't mattered one whit, not a whit since Oct. 29, 2012," Mr. Christie said, referring to the day when Sandy stormed ashore.

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Such professions of bipartisanship have been undermined in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal, which state lawmakers and prosecutors continue to investigate. Last month, Dawn Zimmer, the Democratic mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey's second-largest city, asserted that she had been pressured to approve a real-estate development by Mr. Christie's deputy as a condition for receiving Sandy relief funds.

Two key Christie aides have refused to co-operate with a subpoena from an investigative committee seeking records, saying to do so would violate their constitutional right against self-incrimination. A judge will weigh that argument at a hearing next month.

On Thursday, however, Mr. Christie kept the focus on efforts to recover from Sandy. He appeared to relish taking questions and alternated his tone between serious and sympathetic. At one point, a three-year-old girl stepped forward to tell a crouching Mr. Christie that her "house is still broken." He promised to help however he could.

Still, the scandal is never far from the surface. "In the old days, Chris Christie always controlled the message and his critics could never get any traction," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "Today he controlled the message, but tomorrow may be another story."

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