Christie road trip is sign of growing confidence in possible 2016 presidential bid
Members of Christie's inner circle said the emerging field of Republican contenders is relatively weak, lacking a presumptive front-runner after back-to-back defeats in national elections. The unsettled landscape gives Christie ample time and opportunity to bounce back, they said.
But Democrats and some Republicans remain skeptical that Christie will be able to weather the political storm and remain a formidable force.
Christie aides announced Monday that the governor plans to travel to six states this spring to host events for GOP candidates and for the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs. The stops in Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Utah, Connecticut, and Massachusetts underscore Christie's national ambitions, which have been fueled by encouragement from influential Republican officials and donors.
Christie's political team has been laying the groundwork for the six-state RGA swing for weeks, promising Republican associates in conference calls and closed-door huddles that he has not discarded his long-planned playbook for the year. The aggressive behind-the-scenes maneuvering stands in contrast to Christie's public statements about the bridge controversy, in which he has struck a humble, conciliatory tone and vowed to focus his energies on New Jersey issues.
Bill Palatucci, Christie's closest adviser, touted Christie's travel plans at last week's Republican National Committee winter meeting in Washington.
"To a man and a woman, everyone there offered his or her continued support," Palatucci said.
Christie's goal is to bring in more than $100 million by the end of 2014 for the RGA.
Christie is also considering fund-raisers for Senate and House candidates and state parties. The bulk of the travel will not begin until after Christie gets through Sunday's Super Bowl, which will be played in East Rutherford, N.J., and his annual state budget proposal.
In private, Christie has brushed off suggestions that he should slow down his travel and further shake up his political operation after firing Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, and Bridget Kelly, his deputy chief of staff, for their involvement in the traffic flap. Instead, Christie and his loyalists have drawn closer.
Palatucci and veteran strategist Mike DuHaime remain Christie's gatekeepers. Jeffrey S. Chiesa, a former Christie law partner who was appointed to briefly serve in the Senate last year, is another integral player, as is Russ Schriefer, the brains behind Christie's carefully crafted commercials and videos.
In an interview Friday, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he expects Christie to get through the scandal with his reputation intact.
"There are a number of Republicans who have real potential," Romney said, citing his former running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, among others. "Chris is certainly part of that group."
The challenge for Christie is convincing Republican power brokers that he has endured little long-term damage.
"The next issue to watch for Christie is backwash," said Ed Cox, chairman of the New York GOP. "Democrats smell blood in the water, so they'll keep coming, and dealing with that will not be easy. But this is his time to do what he needs to do, since a lot of Republican governors are absorbed in their own campaigns. I don't think he'll be in the bunker."
Christie's standing among Republicans has dropped sharply since the bridge scandal broke. A Fox News poll released last week showed that 41 percent of Republicans think Christie has a strong future in the party, a 22-point fall from the previous survey.