- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New Jersey voters are giving Gov. Chris Christie the benefit of the doubt as he fights for his political life over a traffic-jam scandal, according to new polling that says more residents see him as a leader than as a bully who takes swipes at political foes.

Mr. Christie’s favorability rating still tops 50 percent, and even Democratic voters don’t think the Republican governor was involved in closing off toll lanes to the George Washington Bridge last September, according to a new survey released Wednesday by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Nine out of 10 New Jersey voters say they’ve heard about “Bridgegate,” but they rate the governor as more of a leader than a bully by a 54-40 margin, the poll found.

Nationally, most Americans say the scandal hasn’t changed their opinion of Mr. Christie, according to an NBC/Marist poll.

The numbers are good news for the governor, who analysts said could see his 2016 presidential hopes damaged by the revelation that his top aides directed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close access lanes near the George Washington Bridge for four days.

“New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie is doing better with the public than with the news media,” Quinnipiac polling institute director Maurice Carroll said Wednesday.

SEE ALSO: Chris Christie in 2013: Best thing about being governor is no traffic

Mr. Christie said he knew nothing about the scheme in Fort Lee, N.J., which caused gridlock and mass confusion and may have been a form of payback after the town’s Democratic mayor failed to endorse the governor for re-election.

The NBC poll says 44 percent of Americans think the governor is telling the truth about what he knows, while 33 percent say he is not and 23 percent are unsure.

But the same poll said Hillary Clinton’s lead over Mr. Christie in a theoretical 2016 matchup for the White House has widened to 13 percentage points, up from three points a month ago.

And the investigation into the scandal isn’t going away. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto appointed eight Democrats and four Republicans to a special committee that will probe the matter.

The committee also appointed former assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar, who helped convict former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of corruption, as special counsel for the investigation.

Mr. Christie’s approval rating has taken a hit — down to 55 percent from an all-time high of 74 percent in February of last year — but remains on the positive side of the ledger. And voters by 51-41 percent said he is honest and trustworthy and by 74-23 percent said he is a strong leader, according to Quinnipiac.

SEE ALSO: Fallon, Springsteen parody Christie’s traffic jams

“His job approval has dropped from the stratosphere, but it’s still double-digit positive, pretty much where he was before his Superstorm Sandy hug with President Barack Obama,” Mr. Carroll said.

Mr. Christie took heat from his own party for welcoming Mr. Obama to his state’s devastated shoreline in the wake of the October 2012 storm — and at the height of a presidential contest that Mr. Obama won.

Mr. Christie swept to a landslide victory in November, attracting strong bipartisan support for his Hurricane Sandy response.

Those recovery efforts may become a liability for Mr. Christie, after federal auditors said last week they will examine the use of federal funds for tourism ads that featured the governor and his family.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat, requested an audit of the “Stronger than the Storm” ads, based on information the production cost $2 million more than work offered by a separate bidder.

The governor’s office said word of the planned audit was “conveniently timed” and amounts to a routine review of federal expenditures.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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