WASHINGTON – George W. Bush’s onetime envoy to Canada says a new traffic scandal has dealt a blow, although not necessarily a fatal one, to the American presidential prospects of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
That assessment was offered Sunday by David Wilkins, the former U.S. ambassador who remains a player in Republican party politics as a prominent figure in the key GOP primary state of South Carolina.
“It certainly was a blow to his efforts,” Wilkins told The Canadian Press in an interview.
“It certainly does short-term damage. Does it do any long-term damage to his campaign? I think it’s too early to tell. I think you have to wait and see if anything else comes out.”
Different polls have suggested Christie might be the GOP candidate with the best shot at beating Hillary Clinton if they both run, although a new survey suggests his popularity has taken a hit in New Jersey.
An early battle line in that 2016 presidential race has been drawn — and it sits on a traffic-choked bridge to Jersey, after leaked emails suggested Christie’s closest allies intentionally created traffic bedlam to punish political opponents.
Some members of the Republican establishment have emerged to defend Christie in the face of that scandal, which has threatened his status as the presumptive darling of the party brass.
Those expressions of support emerged from various pockets over the weekend, including in an NBC survey of party operatives in important primary states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Those states will play a determining role in a race already being cast as a struggle for the soul of the Republican party, pitting the traditional big-business wing against the increasingly powerful grassroots alliance of libertarians and social conservatives.
Wilkins, for his part, hasn’t decided whom to assist in the 2016 race. He says Christie remains among the half-dozen prospective Republican contenders.
“He’s one of the players. But it’s a long way off and the jury’s still out on how he will play in the South,” Wilkins said.
He said the embattled governor performed about as well as he could have during a marathon news conference where he answered questions for nearly two hours.
High-level Republicans did the rounds of the weekly political talk shows Sunday and all appeared to have the governor’s back — or, at the very least, refrained from twisting the knife.
One defender was the man who led Bush’s campaigns.
Karl Rove applauded the governor’s handling of the affair. In a 108-minute news conference last week, Christie insisted he’d known nothing of any vengeance scheme and that he’d fired or sidelined those accused of conspiring in it. He also went through a gamut of emotions on the public stage, including admitting to having trouble sleeping.
“I think he did himself a lot of good by stepping forward and being very straightforward and very candid and very blunt,” Rove told Fox News Sunday.
“I think he did himself some good by contrasting with the normal, routine way of handling these things. Which is to be evasive, trim around the edges… In fact I think his handling of this — being straightforward, taking action, saying, ‘I’m responsible,’ firing the people — probably gives him some street cred with tea party Republicans who say, ‘That’s what we want in a leader. Somebody who steps up and takes responsibility.’ ”
There were similar remarks from the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, and from former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was himself once seen as a northeastern Republican moderate with presidential potential.
Giuliani called the governor’s performance last week “pretty darn” credible but, like several other commentators, he added an asterisk: if turns out Christie was less than truthful, his career would be “at risk.”
Just before the bridge scandal erupted, a poll by Quinnipiac University suggested Christie might be the most-liked of all possible presidential candidates, boasting strong support from independents.
But that same poll showed him as the 10th-most popular candidate among respondents who identified themselves as Republicans. Another party moderate, Bush’s brother Jeb, scored higher, as did numerous other possible candidates from the party’s more conservative wing.
That ambivalence has been on display in the wake of the scandal. Tea party types have been more likely to criticize Christie, or simply damn him with silence.
To the conservative commentator-in-chief, the emails looked pretty bad.
“This aide of his that he fired, the woman who sent the e-mail (saying), ‘Okay, time for traffic problems in Fort Lee,’ the fact that that meant what it meant means that there is a culture there,” Rush Limbaugh told his radio listeners.
“If I, in my normal day, let’s say I got an e-mail (saying), ‘Okay, time for traffic problems,’ I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with that. But somebody did. They knew exactly what that meant. That, to me, is quite telling.”
There was steadfast silence from a pair of potential presidential rivals who are vying for tea party support.
The libertarian Sen. Rand Paul said he didn’t have enough details to comment but he did have a joke: “I know how angry I am when I’m in traffic, and I’m always wondering, who did this to me?”
Another potential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said he didn’t want to comment on something he didn’t know anything about.
A defining question of the 2016 Republican primary, if Christie runs, will almost inevitably be about his level of commitment to conservatism.
In fact, speculation about his right-wing bona fides is already something of a GOP parlor game.
On the one hand, he has strongly opposed climate-change initiatives, even pulling his state out of a cap-and-trade regional program. He’s fought same-sex marriage and opposes abortion.
On the other hand, he’s gone along with an Obamacare expansion to medicaid; agreed to provide tuition benefits to immigrant children who arrived in the U.S. illegally; been occasionally supportive of gun control; and backed down from his legal fight against same-sex marriage.
Then there’s his relationship with the conservative movement’s nemesis No. 1: President Barack Obama.
He appears to have a decent working relationship with the president, exemplified by their public appearance together during hurricane-relief efforts just before the 2012 presidential election.
Many Republicans can’t forgive him for that.
Never mind the humanitarian crisis, or even the realpolitik of it all. Obama was quite popular in New Jersey and easily won the state, then, a year later in his own re-election bid, Christie won by 22 points in the biggest margin of any Republican governor in a state carried in 2012 by Obama.
Republicans who vote in primaries just really don’t like Obama.
And, to hear Limbaugh tell it, they don’t like their leaders rubbing elbows with him during a campaign.
“My guess is that people inside the (Washington, D.C.) Beltway have long forgotten that and think that, oh, that’s gonna be such a distant memory,” Limbaugh said.
“(They think), ‘That’s not gonna hurt Christie by the time the 2016 primaries come around.’ And this is another example of how genuinely out of touch people inside the Beltway are, ’cause I’m telling you for, I don’t know how many, but it’s a sizable number of Republican general election and primary voters, Christie ended his chances one week before the 2012 elections by embracing Barack Obama.
“And that’s not something people are gonna forget.”