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2016 GOP hopefuls' Christie dilemma: Rally? Attack? Steer clear?

Christie's position at the front of the pack is in serious danger, and other GOPers who may also have their eyes on the White House are taking note.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the Economic Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Chicago.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the Economic Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Chicago.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s standing among the GOP electorate has taken a hit following an array of allegations that his office abused its power for alleged political gain and payback. The potential 2016 presidential candidate’s once-assumed position at the front of the pack is in danger, and other Republicans who may also have their eyes on the White House are taking note. Here's how they're dealing with it.

Strategy No. 1: Rally around Christie. These folks want to give the governor the benefit of the doubt that he had no prior knowledge of some of his staffers' plan back in September to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge -- allegedly for political retribution. Many in this camp, including Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, say the governor shouldn’t step down from the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs. After all, the RGA announced it raised a record-breaking $6 million in January, even as accusations piled up against the governor.

Walker, who’s up for re-election in 2014, stands to benefit from RGA funds, says Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. She noted that many in this group may have established good relationships with Christie or “he had curried favor and there’s a quid pro quo…And some may genuinely like Christie. He’s been working the field for two years.” 

Strategy No. 2: Go negative. Count Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania among this group.

These Republicans, according to Hunter College political science professor Jamie Chandler, have long considered Christie a RINO— Republican in Name Only. By criticizing Christie they “get their base of voters excited again. They single themselves from the establishment of the party,” said Chandler.

Harrison added they may also see Christie as direct competition and are trying to get him out of the race as soon as possible.

Strategy No. 3: Mum's the word. These politicians are staying quiet or being very cautious. That includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.

“They don’t want to get in the middle of an intra-party squabble,” says Ken Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College. He says potential candidates like Bush and Portman are more likely to paint themselves as compromise candidates, and if they decide to run, “they don’t want to be seen antagonizing anybody.” 

Harrison said: “On the one hand they don’t want to alienate Christie. On the other hand, they don’t want to back him if, in fact, he goes down the tanks and have that used against them in the future."

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, the governor – who topped many public opinion polls last year -- is now in third place among the preferred candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are more desirable, according to the survey.

Here’s a roundup of what Christie's potential 2016 rivals have been saying:

Rallying around Christie

House Budget Committee Chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told ABC’s This Week: ”Right now, all we know is one person’s word against another. You can’t base any conclusion on such a thing … And so unless something else is known or made clear, I don’t see why you would change what’s going on right now. I don’t think he should step down because nothing has been proven, and you always give a person the benefit of the doubt in those kind of situations, in my judgment.”

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former head of the RGA threw his support behind Christie as well. On CNN’s State of the Union, he said: “I don’t think he should step down. I think he should stay there.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who’s up for re-election and would benefit from RGA support, also said he backed Christie. "I have every reason to believe that the information he said is consistent with the truth, and so I still support him in his role as governor and his role in the RGA," Walker said Wednesday at an economic conference in at a Madison, Wis.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told CBS’ Face the Nation that he's “rooting” for the governor and hopes he can “extricate himself.”

Staying mum/being cautious

Texas Gov. Rick Perry kept his distance from Christie, scheduling no events with the governor when he visited the Lone Star State on behalf of the RGA recently. Last year, after Christie was re-elected by a landslide, Perry suggested Christie wasn’t conservative enough for a national run. “Is a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country?” 

Marco Rubio has largely stayed quiet on the scandal. When asked about it on CBS’ Face the Nation, Rubio declined to weigh in, saying it would merely be speculation and “We don’t know all the facts.”

Jeb Bush has yet to weigh in. He’d likely benefit big time should Christie not run, as both politicians appeal to moderate voters.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has also not discussed Christie’s troubles. But the governor is certainly a fan of Portman's. When Christie was asked earlier this week at an event at the Economic Club of Chicago what contemporary public figure he admires most, Christie said Portman.

Going negative

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky called the claims Christie may have known about the lane closure scheme “unsettling” during an interview with KTRK-TV. The Tea Party favorite wouldn’t weigh in on whether Christie should step down as chairman of the RGA, but he said: “Nobody wants to think their government would shut down a bridge or do something just because you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican…It’s an unsettling charge. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s unsettling.”  Like Perry, Paul has also questioned Christie's conservative bonafides in the past.

On NBC’s Meet the Press, former Pennsylvania senator and failed 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum gave Christie props because he “manned up” immediately after the emails surfaced. But Santorum then said he had several concerns, suggesting whom a person hires reflects on them and dictates policy. “It’s very clear that the personnel there was not sensitive to what seemed to be a very obvious wrong thing to do,” Santorum said.