MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is once again at the top of the Republican presidential field and, while dented by the Bridgegate scandal that erupted roughly seven months ago, he remains a powerful fundraiser and popular campaigner, including here in New Hampshire, where he will appear on Thursday.
Mr. Christie dipped in the polls as the bridge scandal emerged, but as the months have ticked by and no evidence has surfaced to directly tie him to the politically motivated lane closures, he has risen again, and now several polls show he leads all 2016 GOP hopefuls in what could be the most wide-open nomination battle in decades.
“I don’t think the exit-closing incident had any impact on Gov. Christie’s chances in New Hampshire or elsewhere,” said Stephen Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican National Committee member. “The 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary in the Republican Party will be one of the most open in history. There is no front-runner and no heir apparent. Gov. Christie’s style of speaking in a straightforward way and tackling tough issues will find a receptive audience here in New Hampshire.”
Mr. Christie’s visit to the Granite State, host of the first-in-the-nation primary, is his second in as many months — stoking additional speculation that he is shifting more of his attention to laying the groundwork for a presidential bid.
Andrew E. Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said the idea that Mr. Christie’s support has dropped off because of “Bridgegate” is overblown — at least for now.
“Really people aren’t paying much attention to this stuff at all,” Mr. Smith said. “But when the campaign heats up, the Republicans are going to bring that up and hammer him for it. Right now, though, it is neither here nor there.”
His latest research for the WMUR Granite State Poll shows Mr. Christie with 19 percent support among GOP primary voters — 10 percentage points higher than in January, about the time the bridge scandal erupted.
Jim Merrill, a veteran GOP consultant in New Hampshire who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, said Mr. Christie’s proven ability to raise money as head of the Republican Governors Association and his upfront style could make him a force in a primary race.
“New Hampshire has always shown a real affinity toward candidates who are blunt, who kind of tell it the way it is and don’t mind mixing it up a bit,” Mr. Merrill said. “John McCain is a great example of that, as is Pat Buchanan.”
(Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, won the New Hampshire primary in 2008, and Mr. Buchanan won here in 1996.)
Mr. Christie also made a trip to New Hampshire last month to endorse Walt Havenstein in the GOP primary race for governor.
On Thursday, he plans to team up with Mr. Havenstein again at a manufacturing company in nearby Nashua.
Afterward, Mr. Christie is scheduled to attend a New Hampshire Fisher Cats minor league baseball game, where he will headline a “Home Run to Victory in 2014” fundraiser for the Republican state committee, alongside the likes of New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu.
If he does make a run for president, he has some allies already in place. Two members of his re-election team from 2013 have since moved to New Hampshire.
Matt Mowers, who was subpoenaed to testify before the New Jersey legislature as part of the Bridgegate investigation, now serves as the New Hampshire Republican Party’s executive director, and Colin Reed, Mr. Christie’s former deputy communications director, is the campaign manager for Scott Brown’s Senate bid.
Mr. Christie, though, has some challenges to overcome as the polling shows that he is the most polarizing figure among the crowded field of likely GOP contenders.
“He is leading right now if you ask people who they are going to vote for, but he is also leading in the dubious honor of which candidate you would not vote for under any circumstances,” Mr. Smith said.
“The reason for that does not necessarily have anything to do with Bridgegate. I think it is because he is not seen as the conservative candidate at a time when the conservative wing of the political party is the one that has the political energy and political juice right now.”
The discontent with Mr. Christie was laid bare on Wednesday when the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, began airing television, radio and digital ads calling into question his record on judicial nominations and criticizing him for not pushing the New Jersey Supreme Court in a more conservative direction.
“Chris Christie promised to change New Jersey’s liberal Supreme Court. Over and over he broke his promise. The court remains liberal. Call Chris Christie,” the narrator says in the commercial. “Tell him to fight for judges who respect the rule of law,” continues the narrator.
Earlier this month, the group welcomed Mr. Christie to Iowa with similar ads, warning that he sided too often with New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled legislature, including in May, when the two sides struck a deal in which Mr. Christie agreed to nominate Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, a Democrat, for tenure.
Mr. Rabner angered conservatives in 2013 when he wrote the opinion that legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey and refused to put a stay on the ruling.