Gov. Chris Christie entered the year with a range of advantages in the emerging 2016 presidential race that combined to make him the early front-runner: a sweeping re-election win behind him, a national image as a no-nonsense problem-solver only growing, and a new platform for building a GOP donor network far beyond his native New Jersey.
Just three weeks into 2014 – on the day of his second inaugural as governor — all of that is gone. With it has gone virtually all of the head start he enjoyed in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
His weekend fundraising swing through Florida tells a slice of the story. Organized through the Republican Governors Association — which Christie now leads — it was supposed to mark his emergence on the national fundraising stage.
Few if any donors backed out as a result of the scandals swirling around him. Most said publicly what they believe privately, that if Christie’s story holds, and no proof emerges that he knew of the political scheming that led to lane closings last year, there’s nothing that disqualifies him from presidential contention.
But much of what Christie had hoped to accomplish at gatherings, such as those held in Florida, will have to wait for another day.
Big-dollar donors who signed up for the events had assumed that they’d get the hard sell on a Christie presidential bid now, with the implication that it’s better to get on a fast-moving train early, according to Republican officials in touch with the donors.
Christie, though, could make no such sell. In answering questions about 2016, he assured them that he would weather the current criticism and cooperate with any and all investigations, and he said to check back with him about a presidential run in a year’s time.
There’s nothing wrong with that answer. But it’s also the same kind of answer that most other Republicans with national ambitions are forced to give.
Therein lies the cost to Christie in the stories emerging when they have. Christie’s head start is now lost in a fog of investigations and careful answers that figure to consume at least the first half of this year.
Others will lay claim to the Christie mantle of no-nonsense problem-solvers from outside of Washington; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who hopes to win his own big re-election this fall, springs to mind, and more than a few Republicans are talking up former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all over again.
The putative GOP superman has gotten a super-humbling. A new poll out Tuesday from Quinnipiac University tells the story, with nearly three-fourths of voters saying they’ve heard about the scandal known as Bridgegate, and half saying it harms Christie’s White House chances.
The key to Christie’s appeal — what makes Christie potentially different than any of a dozen Republicans with eyes on the big prize — is his proven ability to appeal to the nonideological middle.
That is gone, at least for now. Independent voters who just a month ago broke 47-32 for Christie in a hypothetical match-up against Hillary Clinton are now splitting just about evenly, 41 percent for Clinton to 40 percent for Christie, in the new poll.
Christie, who saw his national reputation rise on the strength of his handling of a famous storm, saw weather wipe out much of his inaugural celebration on Tuesday. On the first day of his new term, Christie declared a state of emergency.