Chris Christie faces tall task in reasserting agenda

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

A year ago, Republican Gov. Chris Christie used his "state of the state" speech to solidify already solid bonds with many New Jersey Democrats following the powerful natural disaster that had devastated much of the state's coastline months earlier. 

  With his Garden State popularity level then near its zenith and just about all New Jersey officials pursuing the common goal of winning more federal funding for post-Sandy rebuilding programs, his rhetorical efforts paid dividends.

In Tuesday’s rendition of his annual address, however, Christie will face a far more challenging task: He must carefully reassert himself against a Democratic Party that smells blood in the water following a different kind of storm -- one generated by members of his own administration.

Just one week ago, it would have been hard to imagine that the presumptive front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination would soon have his political future jeopardized by an epic traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, which connects his state to New York City.

But that is exactly the reality Christie faces after emails and text messages implicated members of his administration in an apparent act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat.

The release of many more documents and subpoenas is likely forthcoming in an inquiry that is only just beginning and could well unfold in unpredictable ways.

Democratic leaders in the state General Assembly announced Monday the formation of a special committee to investigate the episode that has already prompted the firings or departures of four Christie confidants.

The governor’s 2014 “state of the state” speech in Trenton will mark his first public appearance since his marathon press conference last week and is sure to generate a similar level of national scrutiny.

Upping the stakes even higher, CNN reported Monday that Christie is facing a separate investigation by federal officials related to the use of Sandy relief funds for New Jersey tourism ads that featured the well-known governor and his family.

Christie is unlikely to offer many further details related to the “Bridgegate” scandal, citing the ongoing investigation as his rationale.

Instead, he will aim to change the subject -- to whatever degree he can -- by highlighting the leadership skills and statewide initiatives that led to his resounding victory in November.

“The overriding thing is going to be to convince everybody, ‘OK this thing has been consuming all the political oxygen in this state, but we’ve got work to do,’” said New Jersey political analyst Carl Golden. “I suspect that he’ll make an effort to shift the debate away from what’s been consuming everybody up here and back onto policy and programs.”

According to a Christie aide, the governor will spend a portion of his remarks on education reform initiatives. And he is likely also to renew his calls for statewide tax cuts, which he made repeatedly during the fall campaign.

Perhaps as notable as the substance of Christie’s speech will be the tone with which he delivers it.

The brash, take-no-prisoners style that has long propelled his political career could now threaten to sink him in the realm of popular opinion, regardless of how the Bridgegate investigation develops.

Still, Christie does appear to have substantial goodwill remaining, for the time being at least.

A Monmouth University poll released on Monday showed that his job approval rating among registered voters in New Jersey has taken a slight hit of six percentage points over the last month but remains a robust 58 percent.

More troubling for Christie, however: The same poll found that personal perceptions of him had taken a more significant plunge. Just 44 percent of New Jerseyans now hold a favorable impression of their governor -- down from 70 percent in the wake of Superstorm Sandy a year ago.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University poll, said the new numbers suggest a wait-and-see approach among voters, who will wait for details of the Bridgegate scandal to unfold.

“They don’t think he’s come completely clean about what he knew and when he knew it, but they don’t think he was involved, and they’re still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Murray said.

As for his big speech on Tuesday, Murray suggested that Christie would take a nuanced tack.

“He can still tout his accomplishments -- but not with all of the bravado,” he said. 

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.