Despite ongoing investigations into a scandal over lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie continues to travel the country as head of the Republican Governors Association. He's promoting the GOP agenda and raising money for this year's elections but compared to Christie's usual style, it's been a low key tour — no media interviews and very few photos ops with smiling candidates.
Christie had a full day in Chicago Tuesday. There were morning and evening fundraisers — closed to the media — and mid-day, the New Jersey governor appeared at the Economic Club of Chicago. That event was open to reporters. It marked the first time in a month that he has appeared in public and made extended remarks.
A moderator from the Economic Club guided the discussion, which started with Christie's first four years as governor and segued into his goals for his second term. Then, 15 minutes in, came this question.
"[A]nd as you think about it going forward, does the G.W. Bridge situation impact your ability to execute on those priorities for the state?"
Christie's response met with laughter from the audience.
"Actually I'm shocked you brought that up," he said, tongue-in-cheek.
Christie repeated his disappointment in members of his inner circle for their role in calling for the traffic-jam-causing lane closures — which led to the scandal. It's alleged it was all an act of political retaliation.
"If you're a leader, you have to try to get a handle on the story and take decisive action, which we did, by letting people go and by talking to the public about it," he said.
But the governor was not pressed on, nor did he go into, the time-line of events.
Christie remains a very successful fundraiser — he brought in $6 million for the Republican Governors Association, its best ever January total. Still, his once sky-high public approval ratings have taken a big hit.
When he's on the road, GOP candidates have often avoided appearing with Christie, sometimes citing scheduling conflicts. Democrats, meanwhile, shadow him with their own road show. They did so on recent visits to Florida and Texas. In Chicago Tuesday, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland did the honors for Democrats.
"Either the Governor knew and he is lying," said Strickland, referring to the scandal, "or he is the most inept, incompetent chief executive imaginable."
Democrats hope keeping the issue alive will sink Christie's well known 2016 presidential ambitions.
In New Jersey, Montclair State University professor Brigid Harrison says Christie, fresh off a landslide reelection in November, had expected he'd be building up, rather than salvaging his image at this time.
"The perception two months ago was that January and February would essentially be the launching of Chris Christie for 2016. That he would become not just the governor, but the nation's governor," she said.
And, Harrison notes, this is when Christie should be collecting IOU's from local Republican politicians and elected officials that he could cash in during the 2016 presidential primaries.
"[W]ith candidates keeping him at arms distance he's not evoking that same kind of political IOU that he would have been had this scandal not broken."
On Thursday, Gov. Christie is on the road again, joining other New Jersey elected officials and business leaders who travel to Washington for a day of events. But as with his other trips, he'll again have to deal with that extra baggage.