Bridge affair travels with Christie to Florida

Gov. Christie in Trenton last week. In his first political trip away from New Jersey since the bridge scandal broke, Christie is in Florida for private fund-raisers and meetings. "It was excellent," one attendee said.
Gov. Christie in Trenton last week. In his first political trip away from New Jersey since the bridge scandal broke, Christie is in Florida for private fund-raisers and meetings. "It was excellent," one attendee said. (JULIO CORTEZ / AP)
Posted: January 20, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. - Glimpsed through tinted glass, Gov. Christie was half twisted around in the front passenger seat, talking to somebody behind him and denying a clear shot to the television camera crews clustered at Country Club Drive and Orange Blossom Trail.

It would have been easy to miss Christie - which seemed to be the point - as he swept into Florida on Saturday for the first of two days of ultra-private fund-raisers and meetings, his first political trip away from New Jersey since the George Washington Bridge scandal put a crimp in his status as an early favorite for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Christie did not mention the issue, nor did he take questions, in brief remarks to donors who paid up to $2,500 apiece to see him at the Orlando Country Club in a fund-raiser for the reelection campaign of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a half-dozen attendees said.

"It was excellent, all about Scott," said one woman, interviewed as she waited in traffic beneath moss-draped oaks to leave the country club. The event, as well as two others scheduled for Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, was closed to the media, and details were closely guarded.

"I've never seen more attention given to such a minute issue," Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) said, adding that none of the attendees were discussing the bridge scandal as they waited for Christie, who was an hour late. "This isn't Benghazi, this isn't IRS, this isn't any of the scandals that are facing the Obama administration, which somehow get swept under the table," Mica said.

Still, the bridge affair traveled with Christie like the dust cloud surrounding the cartoon character Pigpen. On Friday, state investigators issued 20 subpoenas to the governor's inner circle. And on Saturday, the mayor of Hoboken accused the Christie administration of denying her city Sandy relief money because she opposed the proposed project of a politically connected developer.

Christie was in Florida in his capacity as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, chosen by his peers after his landslide reelection in a Democratic state in November. Raising money for fellow governors is the key part of the job, and Christie is slated to be the donor bait at 50 events this year, with an ambitious goal of about $85 million.

It is also a boon to candidates for president, a chance to earn goodwill and expand your network of donors.

GOP strategists believe Christie has particular appeal in battleground states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - all of which have Republican incumbent governors in reelection fights.

"I have heard from a few donors, and their general feeling is that Gov. Christie is being truthful, has fully accepted responsibility, and has acted decisively in firing those responsible," said Fred Malek, the RGA finance chairman. He and other Republicans say Christie's response bolstered his reputation as a leader.

Less clear is what effect, if any, the scandal might have on Christie's presidential ambitions. He is scheduled to attend a reception Sunday during the AFC championship game with about 150 party donors at the home of billionaire Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot - and leader of a group of establishment Republicans who pressed Christie to run for president in 2011, at a time eventual nominee Mitt Romney was faltering.

Langone did not respond to requests for comment but was quoted in the Washington Post on Friday as saying that major GOP donors and bundlers were even more interested in Christie, but that they also planned to ask him some tough questions about the bridge affair.

"If he ends up directly tied to it or the cover-up, it's the end," said Jamie Miller, a Sarasota Republican strategist. Miller is not predicting that will happen, and thinks the bridge issue will not be decisive in 2016. Still, "it was always an open question whether Christie could truly be described as the front-runner," he said. "He's a Northeastern moderate, and to win the nomination, he's going to have to reach a lot of Southern conservative voters."

Barbara Seidenberg, carrying a sign supporting Scott outside the entrance to the country club, said Christie seemed too moderate for her taste, although she "believes he had nothing to do with the problems at the bridge."

She prefers two more right-leaning prospects, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"Some Republicans don't realize that we have a fight on our hands - the Democrats are of one collectivist mind and they appeal to people's emotions," said Seidenberg, 56, an information-technology professional from Orlando. "The everyday voter needs to understand what our country was founded on."

Richard Cole, the Republican chairman of Sumter County in central Florida and a native of the Main Line, said that after eight years of Barack Obama, he was looking to win. He is optimistic Christie will emerge stronger from Bridgegate, benefiting from a backlash against what he called the biased media hyping the story.

"In my opinion, Christie is the most electable candidate we've seen step forward so far," Cole said in a telephone interview. "The man means what he says and says what he means."


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

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