Chris Christie took the first step in damage control Thursday by apologizing and announcing he was firing two of his closest aides connected to a scheme to jam up traffic on the George Washington Bridge. But despite a textbook press conference, his longer-term political problem is likely to be from his own party, where the scandal is giving a legion of under-the-radar Christie skeptics room to criticize the governor.
Christie's base has always been his New Jersey inner circle and Wall Street donors enthused over his electability and pragmatic approach to governance. By contrast, Christie never engendered deep support among Washington GOP insiders –- no surprise, given his routine slams at Congress -- and, more importantly, among skeptical conservatives who believe he's in politics more for self interest than principle. Conservatives have been disappointed with him ever since his camaraderie with President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and his public critiques of the tea party.
Republican media strategist Rick Wilson, who worked on Rudy Giuliani's 2008 presidential campaign, argued that Christie "goes out of his way to be a dick to other Republicans" -- and will reap the payback if his fortunes start to head south.
"You're going to see conservatives returning the favor he gave them over the last year. There's no love lost between Chris Christie and conservatives. I don't expect them to be in love with him, and he doesn't want their love," said Wilson. "But if you want to win a GOP primary, you better find a way to get there."
Wilson added the scandal threatens to tarnish Christie's luster with prospective donors because "they don't like scandals, and this makes him look like at best he lost control of his organization."
The other factor that fueled the Christie boomlet throughout 2013 was a perception that he's the most electable Republican presidential candidate. Poll after poll showed him running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in hypothetical 2016 matchups, while every other contender posted medicore favorability ratings. His broad campaign coalition, winning over Hispanics and women, was viewed as a model for successful national candidates to emulate. If Christie's sky-high popularity begins to fray, he loses the very assets that propelled him into the national conversation.
Christie's epic press conference performance illustrated what's made him such a compelling political figure, while also illustrating potential risks to his approach. He immediately took responsibility for his administration's actions, apologized, and canned members of his inner circle. But he also was self-indulgent, taking questions for nearly two hours, giving reporters and critics plenty of material to work with to examine any inconsistencies. He made a smart political move in immediately firing deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly, who wrote the most offending e-mails, and demoting close longtime political aide Bill Stepien. But the speed of the firings also shows he's willing to do anything to protect No. 1.
The general consensus among GOP strategists is that Christie was masterful in his crisis management, surviving the initial scrutiny with a characteristically effective press conference. But if any revelations emerge that he was less than truthful about what he knew, any presidential talk could become kaput. Unlike President Obama, who faced his own problems with damage control last year, the loyalty towards Christie doesn't run deep within the party.
"If he can get past this, that same Christie will be able to make a mark and a good impression with voters in a primary debate. He performs well on the big stage. But getting there will be a process. No one press conference or one event will put this to rest," said former Romney communications director Kevin Madden.
In an article headlined "The Politics of A-Holes," conservative RedState.com editor Erick Erickson wrote Wednesday: "There's more here and it is going to be the problem that haunts Chris Christie. I'm ambivalent on his run for the Presidency. But I don't see him getting that far for the very reasons underlying this issue — he and his staff operate as divas."
Added one GOP strategist: "He has gotten way, way ahead of his supply lines in terms of national exposure. His straight talk reputation now runs the risk of slipping into a bad place where voters grow tired of his style and this kind of drama."