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Plenty in his own party happy to see Christie get comeuppance

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 7:19 PM EST, Fri January 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The GOP's conservative base has never warmed to Christie
  • Christie's public embrace of President Obama in 2012 hurt him with Republicans
  • GOP Sen. Rand Paul, a tea party favorite seemed to take a dig at Christie
  • But a GOP strategist says: "I do not believe there's going to be any retribution from conservatives over this"

(CNN) -- As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fights back against the biggest political controversy of his career, he's under fire, as expected, from opportunistic attacks from the left.

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But there are plenty within his own party who may also be pleased to see the tough-talking Republican governor get a bit of a comeuppance.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is embroiled in unfolding controversies over alleged political payback. The primary scandal involves suggestions key aides and supporters orchestrated traffic gridlock around the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee last year to punish that town's mayor for not endorsing Christie's reelection. A separate controversy involves a federal watchdog's review of whether Christie improperly used Superstorm Sandy funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family.
Who's who in Christie bridge scandal
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Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics. Aides and appointees of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have been accused of closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, pictured, for not endorsing Christie for re-election. If true, this wouldn't be the first time an American politician was targeted with dirty tricks -- the practice goes back as far as running for office. Click through to see other examples of less-than-ethical campaign tactics.
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The party's conservative base has never warmed to Christie. And he angered other Republicans with his 2012 Republican National Convention speech that was more about him than the party's nominee Mitt Romney.

And some will never forgive him for his public embrace of President Barack Obama who was surveying damage in New Jersey from Superstorm Sandy just days before the presidential election.

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Christie took the first steps Thursday toward rehabilitation -- apologizing profusely and announcing that he had fired two close aides connected the closing of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge -- the nation's busiest -- to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, for not endorsing him in his re-election bid last year. The lane closings caused massive traffic jams in Fort Lee.

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Following Thursday's news conference, a top national tea party leader questioned whether Christie had put the controversy behind him.

"Governor Christie held some subordinates accountable. Time will tell whether this is enough," wrote Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots.

Judson Phillips, who heads the Tea Party Nation, went a step further.

"This incident is proof that once again the most dangerous place on the earth is the spot between Chris Christie and his presidential ambitions," Phillips told CNN.

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"I strongly suspect there will be litigation as a result of this and the beauty of litigation is the truth will come out. I strongly suspect there is much more to this than what Chris Christie let on in his news conference."

Grassroots conservatives are skeptical of Christie because of his praise for Obama over the federal government's assistance to New Jersey for Sandy damage, and because of his criticism of some congressional Republicans over their initial reluctance to support federal relief aid to Garden State following Sandy.

Christie has also angered conservatives with his willingness to work with Democrats on such issues as immigration reform, and his criticism of some on the right, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party favorite who's a possible rival for the 2016 GOP nomination.

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Thursday, following the Christie news conference, Paul seemed to take a dig at Christie, saying, "I don't know who e-mailed whom, who works for whom. I have been in traffic before and I know how angry I am, and I'm always wondering, who did this."

Erick Erickson, co-founder of RedState.com and leading voice on the right, wrote Wednesday in an article titled "The Politics of A-Holes" that "There's more here and it is going to be the problem that haunts Chris Christie."

And Breitbart's Matthew Boyle, who's also influential among conservatives, tweeted Wednesday that "Chris Christie is not a conservative. Don't delude yourself into thinking he is."

But the conservatives couldn't resist an opportunity to get in a dig at their real nemesis.

"The contrast between Barack Obama and Chris Christie in terms of owning a mess and fixing it is now pretty stark," tweeted Erickson.

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"This could end being a positive for Christie though. People like accountability. They're not getting that with Obama," wrote Boyle on Twitter.

Jenny Beth Martin made the same point in her statement, writing, "We're still waiting for President Obama to hold anyone accountable."

Christie's re-election team actively sought out the endorsements of Democratic officials, such as Fort Lee's mayor, in its push to win a major gubernatorial victory as a prelude or launching pad to any 2016 White House bid. They succeeded, as Christie won in a landslide over little known state Sen. Barbara Buono.

But the current controversy, born during that re-election drive, gives opponents an opportunity to spin Christie persona of a tough-talking politician into one of a political bully who's not above petty politics.

"This is the other side of the double-edged sword that is Chris Christie's heavy-handed persona and governing style. At one level there's an appeal about it, but underneath it you sense it could blow up," Republican communications strategist Keith Appell told CNN.

"The boss sets the tone for those around him and beneath him. I don't think this is the last story we're going to see about problems with Christie's governing style, and even GOP establishment power brokers and money people will be concerned about how this plays in the 2016 primaries and caucuses -- where the GOP field will be more substantive than it was in 2012," added Appell, a senior vice president at CRC Public Relations, a Washington public relations firm that has had many conservative and Republican clients.

While there's concern, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of conservative criticism right now.

"I do not believe there's going to be any retribution from conservatives over this," Jon Brabender, a Republican strategist and a longtime senior political adviser to former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate, told CNN. "I haven't heard a single person tell me that the news is great because it's going to hurt Christie. I don't think there will be a piling on by conservatives."

Christie, who's now criss-crossing the country, campaigning for fellow GOP governors as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, is seen as prime target of Democrats, especially since three national polls, starting with a CNN/ORC International survey in November, showed Christie as the early frontrunner among possible 2016 Republican contenders. And national and state Democrats have been relentless the past two months in highlighting the George Washington Bridge controversy.

But the bigger concern for Christie going forward is not Democrats, but opponents in his own party.

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