Chris Christie's bridge scandal: A blessing in disguise?

CBS

If ever there were a “good time” for a petty but enormously consequential political scandal to fall into a Republican governor’s lap, could it be approximately one year before he starts publicly exploring a presidential bid?

“Yes, possibly so,” Republican strategist Trey Hardin – who specializes in crisis management – told CBS News.

Earlier this week, news broke that a disastrous traffic jam last September on the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York – initially pedaled as the result of a “traffic study” – was actually ordered by staff and loyalists of Gov. Chris Christie as political retribution toward the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee. Denying he had any knowledge of the scandal, Christie on Thursday stood before the press for nearly two hours, announcing the firings of those involved and accepting full responsibility for his office’s misdeeds.

Reaction to Christie’s mea culpa, CBS News political analyst and conservative strategist Frank Luntz observed Friday on “CBS This Morning,” pitted “Republicans against Republicans.”

The anti-Christies typically gravitated toward the theory that some smoking gun remains to be found.

In a scathing column titled “Chris Christie and the politics of jerks in office,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson stated matter-of-factly: “The story of the day is Chris Christie’s staff behaving badly, possibly at his direction.” Juddson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, told CNN he believed that litigation coming out of the scandal will show “there is much more to this than what Chris Christie let on in his news conference.”

Pro-Christies praised the governor for owning the debacle and rallied around his signature straight-shooting.

“He handled it about as well as he could handle it,” former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Friday of Christie on MSNBC. Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., echoed that sentiment: “I've watched my friend Gov. Christie work through a difficult situation today,” she wrote in a statement. “He did the right thing in taking responsibility in a tough situation. That’s the kind of leadership that earned him the huge level of trust he has in New Jersey.”

The split is a microcosm of what analysts have long expected the famously moderate leader to face should he decide to pursue his 2016 White House ambitions, but the accidental sampling’s timing allows him at least a year to determine what to do about it. And what he should do, the aftermath largely suggests, is stick with his current strategy.

Even some like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots – who initially questioned Christie’s involvement in the scandal – admitted after seeing the press conference that Christie demonstrated a welcome departure from the level accountability displayed in the current administration.

“The contrast between Barack Obama and Chris Christie in terms of owning a mess and fixing it is now pretty stark," Erickson wrote on Twitter. Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle echoed that sentiment with his own tweet: “This could end being a positive for Christie though. People like accountability. They're not getting that with Obama.”

The incident is by no means a godsend, Hardin said, but how Christie handled the situation “certainly neutralized the situation”: “His immediacy, how quick he was to act and apologize and take responsibility – he fired the people truly accountable – that’s going to ultimately resonate more down the road than closing a couple lanes on the G.W. Bridge,” Hardin said.

 Luntz – who summarized Christie’s news conference as “about as strong as you can get in any apology” – predicted that in early primary states like Iowa, rife with the party’s right-wing voters, the scandal will take a backseat to his controversial work with President Obama on securing recovery aid for his state after Hurricane Sandy.

“This [scandal] is no big deal, provided that he told the truth,” Luntz said. “Chris Christie has more trouble in a Republican primary because of his embrace of Barack Obama than he does this scandal. This will be an issue in the general election.”

Indeed, Hardin agreed, the bridge ordeal may have manifested in the general in a very big way – if Christie hadn’t handled it the way he did.

“It could have been something you’d see used against him over and over again,” Hardin said. “But now, if Democrats wanted to keep hammering this in their ads against him, at some point the media and others would start going, ‘Really?’ The guy literally did was he was supposed to do. He apologized, he held those responsible – and himself – accountable. So I think, eventually, that route would backfire on them.”

  • Lindsey Boerma On Twitter»

    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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