Chris Christie's political ambitions ran smack into political reality Friday.
At a Ritz Carlton ballroom in a Washington, DC suburb, the New Jersey governor addressed a room of technology company executives where he vowed to address the tough issues that politicians often avoid while promising to continue his brand of “honest talk.”
Meanwhile, 230 miles north in Newark, NJ, one of Christie’s former close advisers, David Wildstein arrived at the federal court hours to enter a guilty plea on two counts of conspiracy for his role in the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal.
Christie didn't address the bridge scandal but it once again overshadowed the content of his address.
Wildstein’s guilty plea is just the latest in the ongoing bridge case that has plagued Christie and his political ambitions. The investigation and subsequent court cases have been going on for nearly a year and a half and has damaged Christie’s image, hurt his approval ratings and clouded his message. As he gears up for a likely presidential run, it will continue to be a thorn in Christie’s side. The question is if he can run a successful campaign despite it.
Christie addressed the latest developments via Twitter Friday afternoon, saying, "Today's charges make clear that what I've said from day one is true."
Regardless of Christie's insistence that he played no part and that no evidence has indicated such, Christie's name will continue to be associated with the scandal and the issue will continue to be in the headlines. For instance, two more of Christie's former aides, his former deputy chief-of-staff Bridget Kelly and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority, were indicted on nine counts Friday. And Wildstein’s sentencing date is August 6, around the time the Republican presidential debates are likely to start, making for some potentially difficult headlines for Christie.
Kelly spoke out for the first time Friday, saying,"I am not guilty of these charges. I never ordered or conspired with David Wildstein to close or realign lanes at the bridge for any reason, much less for retribution."
Coming out of the last presidential election, Christie was one of the most popular Republicans in the country. Superstorm Sandy rolled in and Christie’s profile ballooned. At the end of 2012 and early 2013, Christie’s approval ratings hit an impressive 70 percent according to some polls. His national average hovered around 50 percent while his unfavorable ratings dipped to the low 20s.
More than two years later, those numbers have flipped.
Political pundits and observers often ask if Christie’s time has passed. He was heavily courted to be a candidate in the run up to the 2012 presidential election but he declined. He even brought up the scenario Friday morning, saying he said at the time: “I said I’m not ready.”
While Christie hasn’t announced his candidacy, he hinted that he's now ready. He attributed Superstorm Sandy as an event that “went a long way to making me ready.”
Until recently, however, Christie showed few signs of being ready. While potential challengers ramped-up their travel and fundraising efforts for a national campaign, Christie kept a low profile. People wondered if he was not going to go through with it as the field seemed to be moving past him, racking up donors, staff, endorsements and supporters.
In April, Christie cautiously stepped into the scene as his presidential-type activity picked up. He did a multi-day swing through New Hampshire culminating in a Republican summit for presidential – or likely – candidates. His wife quit her half-a-million dollar per year job at Goldman Sachs, he lost a recognizable amount of weight and he attempted to raise the stakes of the presidential race by proposing to cut Social Security benefits – a topic that most politicians avoid.
But are Republican voters ready for Christie this primary?
Christie is likely to face a deep bench of challengers, ranging from the tea party right to the center right. He was expected to be former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s main opponent, appealing to same moderate Republican constituency and faction of donors who appreciate pragmatism and electability. But Christie has struggled to gain traction. In recent polling conducted by NBC News, only Donald Trump had a higher unfavorability rating than Christie among Republicans.
Some Republican strategists watching the race closely say the polls don’t matter 10 months before the Iowa caucuses.
“The polls are only relevant for the pollsters who collect the revenue," Steve Duprey, Republican national committeeman for New Hampshire, said.
In addition to his performance in the polls, bridgegate has impacted Christie's style. His bombastic and brash approach to politics and people has been tempered.
“Being the tough talk guy and being a bully is a very fine line,” Reed Galen, Republican strategist who was John McCain’s deputy campaign manager in 2007, said. “Bridgegate pushed him to the bully side of the equation – fairly or unfairly.”
At the Ritz Friday morning, he revived some of his controversial positions that he’s avoided in recent months but he was polite and not as in your face. It was a Chris Christie who wanted to shake things up but not play into the New Jersey tough-guy stereotype.
He once again pushed for raising the retirement age for social security and means testing benefits. “If (Republicans) do not first talk to you about how to reform entitlements, with all due respect, you ought to just eat your breakfast and not pay any attention,” Christie said of Republicans talking about budget proposals.
After a long hiatus from the issue, he talked about immigration, saying he doesn’t support building a fence or a wall along the entire southern border – a popular position among Republican activists. He said it’s not possible to deport the 11 million here undocumented and it’s not realistic to think they will self-deport. “Let’s talk about the issues that matter,” he said.
But Republican operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire say that the bridge scandal won’t have a negative impact on Christie.
Matt Strawn said Iowans won’t hold it against him as long as he answers their questions and Duprey, the committeeman in New Hampshire, says that Republicans aren’t concerned with it, especially because Christie hasn’t been implicated.
“Everybody running’s got an issue,” Duprey said. “Every single candidate is going to get knocked off their perch at some point and New Hampshire favors resilience and perseverance.”