Chris Christie may be a larger-than-life political figure, but his path to the White House runs through one of the country's smallest states. Nowhere does the fallout from "Bridgegate" matter more to the New Jersey governor than it does in New Hampshire.
The Granite State is the make-or-break early contest for Christie if he seeks the GOP nomination in 2016. While he might make an effort in other early voting states like Iowa or South Carolina, their more socially conservative tilt could prove too much for a relatively centrist Northeasterner to overcome. By contrast, New Hampshire’s less ideological and more pragmatic Republicans gave Mitt Romney a resounding win in 2012 and would offer Christie a similar launchpad .
New Hampshire’s centrality makes it a useful bellwether for determining if the traffic revelations are a mortal wound to his presidential hopes or just a glancing blow.
Republican officials and conservative activists who spoke to msnbc all made it clear that they take the allegations against the Christie administration seriously. But they also want to see how far the scandal climbs before they evaluate Christie’s presidential bona fides.
“I think we’re more cautious up here, we wait to hear the whole story,” Cliff Hurst, who chaired the state presidential campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty, told msnbc. “If we don’t have the truth, I think it can be more serious.”
Jim Merrill, who ran Romney’s 2012 state campaign, praised Christie for his press conference denying involvement in the “serious charges.”
“Our voters like plain-spoken leaders, but rightfully abhor abuses of power by either party,” Merrill said. “If he runs, New Hampshire voters will ask tough questions and give him every opportunity to respond and make his case. Few are better suited to do that than Governor Christie.”
Ken Eyring, founder of the Southern New Hampshire 912 Group, thought Christie “did the right thing” in his post-scandal response, even though the governor is too moderate for his tastes. But that doesn’t mean the traffic scandal is a minor story, especially if more comes out.
“It would be an abuse of his position in a public office,” he said. “These people we elect are public servants. They’ve forgotten that whether it be Democrats or Republicans, they’re both guilty of using their positions of authority to further their agendas.”
An editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader, an influential voice in the Republican primaries, captured the “wait and see” dynamic well.
“If Christie was telling the truth when he spent two hours last Thursday denying any involvement in or knowledge of the scheme to close those lanes, he can weather this storm, though trusting staffers capable of such vindictiveness will be considered a mark against him,” the editors wrote. “If he was not telling the truth, his political career should be finished.”
A survey of 528 New Hampshire Republican voters by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling released on Thursday suggests a similar consensus. PPP found Christie actually improved his position in the GOP primary since they last polled in September: 24% of respondents said they supported him for president, versus 12% each for Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, 11% for Mike Huckabee, 9% for Ted Cruz, 8% for Marco Rubio, 4% for Paul Ryan, and 3% each for Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal.
As for the general election, Christie trails Hillary Clinton in a hypothetical contest by a 43-39 margin, exactly the same as PPP’s September poll.
But that doesn’t mean New Hampshire voters are indifferent to the story. A whopping 68% of Republican respondents said they have heard a lot about the bridge scandal and an additional 21% say they’ve heard “a little.” If another shoe drops during an investigation, it’s not likely to go unnoticed.
Not everyone is so patient with Christie, however. Republican state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, who likened the New Jersey lane closures to “political terrorism,” thinks Christie should be held accountable for his senior staff’s performance even if he was unaware of what they were up to. He noted that Republican commentators are still outraged by IRS audits of conservative and progressive nonprofits even though there’s no evidence President Obama or his top aides had anything to do with them.
“I’m a libertarian who is concerned that government obey the laws we enact,” he told msnbc. “How can anyone have confidence in Christie after what he did?”
Christie, for his part, used a public appearance on Thursday to refocus attention away from any presidential speculation and back towards his job as New Jersey’s chief executive.
“I want to assure the people of New Jersey of one thing: I was born here, I was raised here, I’m raising my family here, and this is where I intend to spend the rest of my life,” Christie said. “And whatever test they put in front of me, I will meet those tests because I’m doing it on your behalf.”