Officially, Gov. Chris Christie says he’s still mulling whether to run for president. But unofficially an apparatus is being readied to announce a candidacy sometime between Memorial Day weekend and July 4th — a timetable that will be determined by how soon he can wrap up a deal on the next budget with Democrats who control the Legislature. Friday’s news that three former associates have been accused in the Bridgegate affair — David Wildstein pleaded guilty, while Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni will be arraigned today — has not fundamentally altered the governor’s timetable, sources say. There’s several reasons for that.
Media. The New York Times has been aggressive in its portrayal of Christie’s pending political death at the hands of Bridgegate. This weekend one headline, later softened, read: “Christie’s White House Hopes Seem to Be Fading.” And other New York-based media outlets, including this one, have covered the Bridgegate story thoroughly and extensively. But Bridgegate hasn’t gotten nearly the same kind of play elsewhere, particularly in entities with influence in GOP presidential primaries. The Drudge Report, widely read by conservatives, didn’t post a Bridgegate indictment story Friday. Fox News ran an interview, taped a week earlier, that offered only softball questions about Bridgegate. And in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary in the nation and is increasingly seen as a must-win for Christie, just one of five newspapers put the Bridgegate story on the front page Saturday.
Christie has not (yet) been proven a liar on Bridgegate. The Friday indictments brought to lights lots of information. Bill Baroni, Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority, is believed to be involved in planning the scheme. The feds confirmed that the plot was, indeed, about political retaliation after the Democratic Fort Lee mayor had the gall not to endorse the governor’s reelection. And the lane closures were allegedly timed for the first day of school to trigger the most traffic and exact maximum pain. But none of these allegations indicate that the governor ordered the lane closures or was involved in the cover-up of the scheme. And in that sense, Christie’s statements from more than a year ago — both to the media and to his political donors — stand: He was not involved. A couple of messy trials involving Baroni and Kelly, his indicted former chief of staff, could change that, but for now he hasn’t been proven to be a liar.
Cases closed. Bill Stepien, Christie’s former campaign manager, was investigated by the feds over his possible involvement in Bridgegate, but no charges were brought and no charges are expected. Although Christie has ousted Stepien, the fact that his campaign manager can claim exoneration indicates that the lane-closure retaliation scheme has not been proven to have reached Christie’s campaign. And that’s great for the governor, because it supports his argument that this was a rogue operation. Likewise, a separate but related investigation into allegations that Christie’s lieutenant governor and two cabinet officials threatened to take away Superstorm Sandy aid from the Hoboken mayor ended Friday with letters from the US Attorney of New Jersey saying that that investigation has been closed. A major case still looms — Christie’s close friend, former Port Authority Chairman David Samson, is still under federal scrutiny for various corruption allegations. But the governor watched on Friday as more former allies were cleared than charged.
Christie still has his billionaire$. Christie’s most prominent billionaire backer, Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone, still backs the governor despite the Bridgegate drama. As do other billionaires, his advisers say, who told the Christie camp on Friday that they were not worried about the indictments. Christie has also hinted at the tantalizing possibility that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, could support his candidacy. And while one GOP source claims that half of the top national Republican donors who live in New Jersey are supporting Jeb Bush instead of Christie, in an era when one rich person can finance a presidential campaign via loosely regulated political action committees Christie is confident that he has enough money to remain competitive at least until the first votes are cast next year.
Christie can talk. The Huffington Post’s Scott Conroy wrote last month that “no prospective GOP presidential candidate is better at talking to voters.” That evidence was on display last month, when he won voters over a town hall meeting. He’ll be back at it this week, barnstorming New Hampshire to shake hands at restaurants and host a town hall meeting at a bar. Christie’s strategists believe if they can get him in front of enough people in New Hampshire over the next eight months that he can eke out a victory in a crowded field.