- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Gov. Chris Christie is not on the ticket in New Jersey this year, but his legacy is looming over the race to succeed him.

Christie has largely retreated from the kind of public life he led before the presidential election, trading raucous town halls, jousting sessions with reporters and his trademark tell-it-like-it-is style on hot-button issues for a high-profile but uncontroversial agenda to combat drug addiction.

The Republican looms over the race in part because he has been a larger-than-life politician who went on late-night TV, appeared on the covers of national magazines and generally enjoyed a celebrity not usually seen in the New Jersey statehouse.

But he has also had a remarkable fall from popularity, from its peak after Superstorm Sandy to the record low approvals he has today after the George Washington Bridge scandal and a failed presidential run.

A closer look at how and why Christie’s legacy is factoring into the race to succeed him:

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THE NOT-CHRISTIE CAMP

The slogans from two top Republicans running for governor say a lot about how they view the value, or lack thereof, of Christie’s political legacy. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has gone with “better.” Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli uses “a new direction” as his tagline. It’s an approach that might not work, given how close Republicans have been with Christie over his two terms.

Mike DuHaime, Christie’s presidential campaign strategist, said it could be tough to disavow the governor completely. “I subscribe to the notion of be what you are,” he said. “If you modulate everything you are to be anti-Christie, people see through that.”

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THE YOU’LL-MISS-HIM-WHEN-HE’S-GONE CAMP

Other Republicans see a strong argument in pitching their party as a check on the Democrat-controlled Legislature. They’re not entirely embracing Christie, mindful of his low popularity, and instead are focusing on his policies: opposition to the Democrats’ proposals to raise income taxes on the affluent and restoring solvency to the pension fund by cutting benefits, for instance.

Assemblyman Robert Auth, of Bergen County, said that voters should go for a Republican in the November election as a “bulwark” against the Legislature and that with time, Christie will regain popularity.

“I think when people come back, in a little bit of time, especially if things don’t go well for Republicans in the gubernatorial race, they won’t look at Christie as being such a bad guy,” he said.

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THE CHRISTIE-AS-POLITICAL-WEAPON CAMP

Then there are some Democrats, like Phil Murphy, the former business executive and ambassador, who regularly criticize Christie. “Christie has failed the state of New Jersey,” Murphy said in a recent fundraising email.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, one of Christie’s fiercest critics in the Legislature, said she doesn’t think it’s possible for Republicans to focus only on Christie’s successes. “If I were a strategist I would be very much hitting on the theme of Christie and the way he’s left things,” she said, pointing to the Access to the Region’s Core tunnel that Christie canceled as well as to the bridge scandal.

Christie hasn’t been charged and denies any wrongdoing in the politically motivated 2013 lane closures.

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THE CHRISTIE-AS-AFTERHTOUGHT CAMP

Not all Democrats think Christie’s legacy will be so potent.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said he looks at the party’s roughly 800,000 voter advantage in registrations, Hillary Clinton’s victory in the state in 2016, even though Trump won the national election, and the fact that Christie has been in office for eight years. “It’s a Democrat state,” he said. “And at the end of the day, Chris Christie is not on the ballot.”

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