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Bridge Scandal May Be the Least of Chris Christie’s 2016 Worries

Richard Mroz, left, and Jamie Fox, right, listens as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announces that he has chosen Fox, the former top aide to Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey to be New Jersey's new transportation commissioner and Mroz to be president of the Board of Public Utilities, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014, in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans) Mel Evans / AP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received some good news on Thursday: A Justice Department investigation – so far – has found no evidence that the governor was involved in his state’s “Bridge-gate” scandal, according to a report from NBC 4 New York.

The bad news is that, with a spate of tough economic news and polling showing him flagging among conservatives, Bridge-gate may be the least of Christie’s worries if he’s considering a presidential run in 2016.

Consider these stories over the past few months:

  • This September, Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating, the eighth time it has happened under Christie’s watch – a record for a New Jersey governor.
  • A pair of NBC News/Marist polls in July found Christie more unpopular among Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans than all other potential GOP presidential candidates – with a conservative group already running ads against him questioning his conservative bona fides (see here and here).
  • And while New Jersey’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.7 percent, Christie’s administration has had to deal with the closure of one-fourth of Atlantic City’s casinos – due in part to competition from neighboring states.

Yet more than anything else, maybe the toughest blow to Christie has been to what was once his strongest argument for 2016: his electability.

After his blowout re-election win last year, Christie and his supporters starting building the argument they would make to convince conservatives suspicious of the brash northeastern governor who defiantly hugged Barack Obama after Superstorm Sandy.

That argument: All that should matter to Republicans is winning, baby. Especially if facing Hillary Clinton.

"We are not a debating society," Christie told Republican leaders last year. "We are a political operation that needs to win."

But here’s the problem with that: Even though the next presidential contest is still more than two years away, the 2016 polling doesn’t show Christie leading Hillary Clinton, or even outperforming other Republicans against Clinton.

Maybe the potential dissipation of the bridge scandal could improve Christie’s standing. The Washington Post is already starting the comeback talk, writing Friday that “Influential Republicans in early presidential primary states believe New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is poised to once again become a frontrunner for the party’s 2016 nomination, following a news report that he is no longer a target of federal scrutiny for his role in a bridge-closing scandal.”

Yet it’s also easy to see how political opponents – either Democrats or Republicans – can shift attacks from the bridge to New Jersey’s credit downgrades. Or his conservative credentials. Or the state’s economy and budget.

After all, in an election that could be largely about economic policy, an adversary hitting him for “a record number of downgrades as New Jersey governor!” is just as potent as knocking him and his administration “for closing bridge lanes to punish a Democratic mayor!”

And then there’s the fact that the bridge investigation isn’t 100 percent over. As NBC 4 New York noted, “Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made.”

There’s also the prospect that aides could be indicted in the Bridge-gate scandal and related inquiries, which means we haven’t seen the final headline here.

But for now, Christie can breathe a sigh of relief when he couldn’t months ago.

The relatively new challenge, though: There are now other dents in the armor.