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Year after lanes closed, Christie back to normal

Created: 09/07/2014 3:52 PM
By: JILL COLVIN

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears to have largely moved past the lane-closing scandal that rocked his administration and threatened to derail his political career one year later. But many outside his tight inner circle are still waiting for investigations to conclude before making up their minds.

What happens next will depend largely on the outcome of the investigation by the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey into the lane realignments that started a year ago Tuesday on the George Washington Bridge and were apparently hatched by the Republican governor's aides as political payback. That includes how close they cut to Christie and whether any new evidence emerges pointing to him knowing more about the plot earlier than he's said. It's not known when, or if, indictments could come.

A state legislative committee has also been investigating the allegations, while the Manhattan District Attorney and Securities and Exchange Commission have been looking into potential abuses of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey money on another bridge.

Meanwhile, things appear to have returned to normal for Christie. After a self-imposed period of exile and contrition, Christie is back to his old self, warning calamity unless public workers accept another round of pension and benefits cuts and earning national headlines with footage of him blowing up at a New Jersey woman who dared to suggest that his musical idol, Bruce Springsteen, didn't want his music played at the Republican governor's events.

"Christie's strategy has been essentially to put it in the rearview mirror. I think it's the right strategy." said David Redlawsk, director of the local Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. "And so far, he's been lucky that it's working,"

From Jersey shore boardwalks to restaurants in early-voting states, Christie is constantly urged to run for president in 2016 — which he is publicly mulling. Nationally, he is bruised, but back to being considered a top-tier candidate for the Republican nomination. And locally, his poll numbers are back to where they were in the summer of 2012, before Superstorm Sandy sent them through the roof.

Still, many party heavyweights and GOP donors are waiting to see what develops before making their minds up about the governor.

"Nobody wants to start working for a candidate who may be tied up in ongoing, never-ending investigations," said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire's Republican National Committee member and the former chairman of the state party. But he said the scandal has had less of an impact on activists in the early-voting state, who rarely bring it up. "I think it's sort of old news unless something new comes out," he said.

Hogan Gidley, a veteran GOP operative in South Carolina who worked for Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said the scandal had hit early enough to give Christie time to recover, but said it would most definitely become a key primary issue if Christie runs, regardless of what investigations uncover.

"It's just too early to tell yet whether this is fatal to his campaign," he said. "I do think it gave a lot of people pause and it took a little bit of the bloom off the rose."

New documents describing how police officers on the bridge reacted to the instructions to redirect traffic lanes reported this week just as he kicked off an official trade mission to Mexico, underscored the unpredictability of the situation. The records show officers warned superiors about hazardous conditions and were told not to talk about it on their radios, according to a summary provided by their lawyer to a legislative panel investigating the scandal.

Still, Christie has largely managed to put the controversy on the back burner. After initially stumbling and making light of the situation in December, Christie is seen by fans as having taken action, holding a marathon press conference and forcing out the aides and Port Authority staffer who appeared directly involved or to know about the scheme.

He went on an apology tour, including a visit to the mayor of Fort Lee, and appeared more subdued at public events. And then he laid low, largely avoiding the media until the summer, when he began remerging — appearing on cable talk-shows, playing in a celebrity softball game, and most famously, appearing on Jimmy Fallon, where he drew laughs with his rendition of "Dad dancing" and openly joked about the scandal.

Christie continues to travel the country and rake in money through his role as chair of the Republican Governors Association, bolstering his national profile and status as a party leader.

According to those who are close to him, after what Christie described as the "toughest time in my professional life," he doesn't seem any different from before.

"I haven't seen any big difference in how he's conducted himself," said Bill Palatucci, one of the governor's closest advisers and longtime friend. "l think he's been himself. I think he has been straightforward and direct and out there."

"I don't think it's affected him," echoed state Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat. "Obviously, I think it's a distraction for the administration because people talk about it so much."

But some voters in states Christie would have to win over in a presidential bid remain cautious.

Donna Bendixen, 69, of Marion, Iowa, met Christie when he traveled to her state, and said she was a fan of the governor's outspoken, direct manner, and was open to supporting him.

When a reporter mentioned the ongoing investigations, however, she visibly cringed.

"I just hope he didn't lie. Please don't let that be the case," she said. "If he actually did lie and was behind it, I would be so disappointed."

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Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill contributed to this report from Trenton.

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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