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Amid 'Bridgegate,' Christie tones it down at town hall

Christie is clearly eager to move beyond the “Bridgegate” scandal that has dogged him for weeks.
Chris Christie laughs as he takes a question during a town hall meeting in Sterling, N.J., Feb. 26, 2014.
Chris Christie laughs as he takes a question during a town hall meeting in Sterling, N.J., Feb. 26, 2014.

Maybe this is Chris Christie 2.0.

The Republican governor of New Jersey, clearly eager to move beyond the “Bridgegate” scandal that has dogged him for weeks and is threatening to derail his political career, offered up a softer side of himself at a town hall meeting in Long Hill, N.J., on Wednesday.

Remember the town hall event when Christie called a student an “idiot”? Or told a voter to "shut up"? Or yelled at his constituents? That seems like a distant memory. 

On Wednesday, Christie kept his cool and defended his $34.4 billion budget plan, which he unveiled on Tuesday.

The questions, which were not pre-screened, were on a slew of subjects, including taxes, traffic lights, noxious gases coming from a landfill, and autism support. The alleged politically motivated lane closures ordered by his staffers on the George Washington Bridge, or claims that his office may have misused Hurricane Sandy relief funds, did not come up.

Christie, who once led the pack in the nascent race to be the GOP's presidential nominee in 2016, noted that it’s his last term as governor. “I’m not going to worry about politics anymore, everybody. This is it. I’m on the back nine,” he insisted. “When you’re on the back nine and you don’t have to worry about playing another front nine, your only obligation is to tell people the truth.”

The Republican received a round of applause from the approximately 500-person crowd when he mentioned that his budget doesn’t raise taxes and gives a $2.25 billion payment to the public worker pension fund. He tried to paint himself as a leader willing to make tough decisions—including greater pension reforms, even if it’s not necessarily popular.

Christie said he wanted to work with the Democratic-controlled legislature, but did not go into detail about what changes Garden State residents could see. 

“Whatever I need to do, I will do,” said Christie, even if it means taking “extreme measures." The governor noted that even though the budget represents an increase of 3.5% over what the state spent last year, 94% of that increase is taken up by pensions, health benefits, and debt.

“My job is not to be entertainer-in-chief,” Christie insisted. “My job is to be the adult in the room, telling you folks the truth about what’s going on.”

He called on 10-year-old Abigail Shannahan, who described her concerns about the state’s education system, asking the governor to ensure that testing happens with paper and pen versus digitally. Christie laughed as she told him: “Don’t be a follower, be a leader.”

Mirna Hernandez, 35, of Roxbury asked the governor for help on the foul-smelling Fenimore landfill site in her township. Christie insisted that while he couldn’t “wave a magic wand,” a fix to cap the landfill was in the works.

She did not buy it and insisted Christie’s promises and jokes were unnerving.

“It’s a ploy,” the 35-year-old told msnbc after the meeting. “It’s not winning me over.”

Christie finished the town hall with a story about his mother on her death bed, and how just over a year ago she insisted that he go back to work. "Christopher, it’s a work day. Go to work,” he recounted her saying, adding, “There’s nothing left unsaid between us,” and how that mentality about leaving it all on the table stayed with him. 

“I know that if my mom were here now to experiences this circus that my life has become, she would love this stuff,” he said.

Near the end of the town hall, a few in the audience interrupted Christie, criticizing him for vetoing an anti-fracking waste ban. Christie largely ignored them, and even joked that he knew not to call on them to ask a question from the beginning. Many in the audience booed the interrupters.

Meanwhile, a new Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll shows Christie’s approval rating has dropped by 20 points to 49% among registered New Jersey voters since the scandal became public. The survey also showed that just 45% gave Christie an above-average grade on Hurricane Sandy recovery, a big dip from five months ago when 72% of those polled gave the governor an above-average grade.

Perhaps ironically, Chrsitie took a jab at pollsters at the town hall.

"The only two professions in America where you keep getting paid even when you are always wrong affect my life evryday: pollsters and weathermen," he said.

On Thursday, Christie plans to fundraise in Boston on behalf of the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs, alongside failed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.