Christie should focus on governing, GOP strategists say

Posted: February 11, 2014

TRENTON - Gov. Christie faces a tricky challenge in reclaiming his political edge as news leaks about investigations and new claims fuel a steady stream of media coverage that keeps scandal in the headlines.

With his poll numbers sliding after the George Washington Bridge revelations, the best thing Christie can do is his job, several Republican strategists said.

"Stories like this take on a life of their own," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant with the Harrisburg firm Quantum Communications, which is advising Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett on his reelection campaign. "Containing that phenomenon is his biggest challenge."

But under the cloud of investigation, and with more allegations cropping up, Christie will continue to face an onslaught of negative news that won't dissipate quickly.

Assuming Christie told the truth about playing no role in an apparent plot to jam traffic at the bridge, strategists said the governor's ability to repair his image - and still be considered a viable presidential candidate in 2016 - will largely depend on how long it takes for the controversy involving his administration to be resolved.

Lawmakers and federal prosecutors are investigating the decision to close access lanes to the bridge in September that led to massive traffic jams in the borough of Fort Lee. The U.S. Attorney's Office is also said to be looking into allegations that Christie officials tied the release of flood relief money to a redevelopment deal in Hoboken, claims the administration has denied.

In a situation like Christie's, "you're often captive to the circumstances of the things you cannot control, and chief among them is time," said Steve Schmidt, senior adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain during the Republican's run for president in 2008.

"Christie's image will be driven by the latest news flash . . . and representations made by a vocal and increasingly partisan opposition," Schmidt said. "They're just going to have to ride it out. Things probably get worse before they get better."

Christie won praise for taking media questions for two hours Jan. 9 after e-mails surfaced implicating a top aide in the lane closures.

Though he's kept up a schedule of public appearances since - with visits to Hurricane Sandy victims, a stop at a Camden elementary school, and events surrounding the Super Bowl last weekend - he's had no further media availability. And his reception in public has sometimes been frosty; last weekend, he was booed at a Super Bowl ceremony in Times Square.

During a visit with Sandy victims Tuesday in Monmouth County, Christie's demeanor was solemn and more formal than during most of his previous forays into hurricane-damaged territory, where he's generally been greeted with gratitude. Some residents, posing for photos with their arms around Christie, seemed to be comforting him, rather than the other way around.

Some crisis-management specialists say Christie should release information about the controversies rather than let news seep out as lawmakers and prosecutors examine subpoenaed documents and talk to witnesses.

"The drip, drip, drip of information coming out about this story is rule No. 1 of what you want to avoid," said Melissa Schwartz, vice president for strategy and external affairs at the Bromwich Group in Washington, which has worked for the Obama administration.

The governor has said that his office is complying with a federal subpoena and that an internal review led by outside counsel was underway.

A Democratic operative in Washington who spoke on background to avoid jeopardizing work in New Jersey said Christie "needs to do more house cleaning" within his administration and also take more media questions.

"He looks like he's in a bunker; he's never out there talking," the operative said. "The problem for him now is every time he goes out, there are 10, 20 unanswered questions."

Republican strategists said Christie had nothing to gain by taking questions about a controversy he's already addressed. They offered few criticisms of Christie's response to the crisis - save for his office's release of a memo attacking David Wildstein, a former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The memo, referring to a newspaper profile, mentioned allegations of "deceptive behavior" by Wildstein when he was in high school. Schmidt, noting that Wildstein was hired at the Port Authority with Christie's approval, called the attack profoundly stupid.

"When you're being accused of political bullying, you don't pick on a guy's deficiencies from high school," Schmidt said.

Christie can't say much to improve his image, "but there are things he can do in the course of being the governor," said Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist at Purple Strategies in Washington. "Focusing on the doing, and speaking when there's something worthy of being said, is a very sound strategy for him right now."

The governor has been trying to show he can continue to run government while handling the scandal. On a radio show last week, Christie noted he had met that day for an hour and a half with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

"It's not like I can say I need a few months off to deal with this," Christie said. "I don't need a few months off to deal with this."

On Thursday, the governor is scheduled to participate in a Sandy-related town-hall meeting, and he plans to hold more events after presenting a budget at the end of the month, an aide said.

Christie, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has not cut back on travel. On Tuesday, he heads to Chicago for a public event at the Economic Club, followed by private RGA fund-raisers. He has a number of other speaking engagements on his calendar, including the Conservative Political Action Conference, which did not invite him last year.

Though Christie's role leading the RGA had been seen as key to laying the groundwork for a presidential bid, the recent controversies have set off speculation about his chances.

Neil Oxman, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia, said questions about other possible abuses of power by Christie's administration posed a greater threat than the bridge revelations.

"If there are 10,000 articles, 9,500 of them will be bad," Oxman said, calling the coverage "Chinese water torture" for Christie. "You can't run for president under that cloud."

But the electorate has proved forgiving, GOP strategists said. "It seems like you get one mulligan," Haynes said. "Voters are going to get tired of seeing other people in the political arena feel like it's their turn to step up and whack the Chris Christie piƱata."

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg contributed to this article.

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