- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2014

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says the George Washington Bridge scandal won’t derail his presidential aspirations, as he looks to rebuild his public persona two months after the scandal put a dent in his national image.

Hoping to put the issue behind him, Mr. Christie launched a political comeback tour last week in the wake of a widely-panned internal investigation that cleared him of any wrongdoing in the “bridgegate” saga.

In his first television interviews since the scandal broke, Mr. Christie said the report exonerates him.

“I also always knew that this is where it would end because I knew from the beginning I didn’t have anything to do with this and didn’t know anything about it,” Mr. Christie said in a Fox News interview. “But it doesn’t mean I am not responsible. And ultimately, I am responsible for what people do on my watch.”

The 51-year-old followed that up by traveling to Las Vegas to address the annual spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which brought together some of the GOP’s most deep-pocketed donors, including billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who shelled out more than $90 million in the 2012 election and plans to play a hand in the 2016 presidential race.

Mr. Christie emphasized his support for Israel, talking about a recent trip he made there with his family, and said the GOP has to focus on winning again.

SEE ALSO: N.J. Democrat: Too early to say what Christie knew about Bridgegate

“I’m not in this business to have an academic conversation. I am not in this business to win the argument. I am in this business to win elections,” Mr. Christie said. “If we want to just have arguments and stand for nothing, we could just form a university.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich also addressed the conference on Saturday. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, spoke Thursday at a dinner held at Mr. Adelson’s company airport hangar.

Mr. Christie has been operating under a cloud since emails linked his then-Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Anne Kelly and David Wildstein, a Christie-backed official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to the unexpected lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.

The emails contradicted his previous claim that his administration had nothing to do with the incident and sent him into damage control.

Mr. Christie fired Ms. Kelly. He also withdrew his nomination of Mr. Stepien to be chairman of New Jersey’s Republican Party and canceled any business Mr. Stepien had with the Republican Governors Association, of which Mr. Christie is now chairman.

The scandal has stoked speculation that the GOP establishment, which viewed Mr. Christie as their best bet of winning back The White House, is now looking for an alternative and is pushing for Mr. Bush to enter the race.

On Friday, Mr. Christie told reporters that the scandal won’t affect his decision on whether to run for the nomination and that the incident would be a “very small element” of how voters perceive his candidacy.

“Anybody who tries to game out the politics of this kind of stuff years in advance, the last 11 weeks will probably show them that that’s a fool’s errand,” Mr. Christie said.

GOP insiders said Mr. Christie remains a viable presidential candidate.

“I think the punditry has decided it’s damaged his prospects, but I also think Iowans don’t give a damn what the punditry thinks,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP strategist who advised GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. “The reason we have the caucuses is so we can get these candidates up close, kick the tires, hear what they’re thinking and ask our own questions.”

“Unless we see evidence that he ordered the lane closures, he’ll have the opportunity to make his own decision about running, and we hope he comes to Iowa early and often,” he said. “He’ll get a fair hearing, and if his past performances at the many town halls he’s held is any indication, I think a lot of Iowa Republicans will respond.”

Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire Republican National Committee member, said that he does not think the scandal will have a long-term impact on Mr. Christie’s political future — as long as there “are no smoking guns.”

“In New Hampshire, his popularity ratings actually went up after he held the press conference,” Mr. Duprey said. “I think people were impressed by the fact he stood up and took responsibility, accepted blame for poor staff selections and supervision, and answered every question any member of the press had. It was refreshing.”

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