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Falling Stars: GOP's Top 2016 Hopefuls Embroiled in Scandal

GOP governors, once considered among the party’s best hopes for taking back the White House, have suffered significant setbacks in recent months.

Republican governors, once considered among the party’s best hopes for taking back the White House, have suffered significant setbacks in recent months. And their legal and political woes – both large and small – have made the still-developing 2016 presidential race look even more unpredictable.

What’s more, it all comes as congressional Republicans battle low-approval numbers and with no clear heir apparent to be the GOP’s next standard bearer.

Here’s why some of the party’s shiniest stars no longer look so bright:

There's New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose administration was accused of conspiring to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a Democratic mayor. Both the state legislature and federal prosecutors continue to investigate the matter.

And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who state prosecutors alleged was part of a "wide-ranging scheme" that illegally coordinated fundraising. But they later walked things back, saying Walker hasn't been accused of a crime and isn't the target of the investigation.

Most recently, there's Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom a grand jury indicted last week of coercing a public official -- by threatening to veto funds from Travis County's Public Integrity Unit if the county's district attorney didn't resign after pleading guilty to drunk-driving charges.

And while he's no longer in office, there's even former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is now in court on corruption charges -- and whose trial looks more and more like a soap opera.

“The reasons for their troubles come back to the polarizing nature of our current political climate, and most of these guys contributed to it,” says Amy Walter, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

For their part, Republicans have dismissed the legal issues and investigations as “phony scandals.”

“Republican governors are focused on leading, getting results, and making their states strong engines of economic growth. That is what voters are focused on, not phony scandals promoted by Democrats who are unable to win at the ballot box,” Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson tells NBC News.

Indeed, observers believe some of these charges are dubious. MSNBC’s Ari Melber argues that the case against Perry seems weak, since the Texas governor has wide to veto funds. Perry himself called the indictment “nothing more than an abuse of power.”

And Walker appears vindicated – at least for the time being – after prosecutors maintained he isn’t a target of their campaign-finance probe.

Still, when it comes to politics, these charges and headlines can be damaging, especially in a high-stakes presidential contest with all of the opposition research and attacks on candidates.

“Indicted” Rick Perry isn’t a helpful association, even if a jury ultimately finds that he’s innocent. Ditto Walker being tied to an allegedly illegal “scheme.” Or Christie being linked to the George Washington Bridge’s lane closings, even though he maintains that he nothing to do with them.

Indeed, when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. – another potential presidential candidate – was asked what one word popped into his head about Christie, he answered: “Bridges.”

That’s the danger from these legal problems: Perception matters in politics, even if the reality turns out to be more forgiving.

Then again, Walter says, it’s possible that almost every 2016 candidate – Democrat or Republican – could be carrying some heavy political baggage.

“We could reach a place in 2016 where every single candidate will have some sort of politically motivated attack on them,” she adds.