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Can Christie change the subject?

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 12:03 AM EST, Wed January 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christie must repair damage from scandal as investigators, Democrats raise questions
  • There are similarities between Christie now and Bill Clinton in the '90s
  • Democratics see scandal as opportunity to tarnish the Christie brand
  • GOP strategist says if it emerges there is a pattern of misbehavior, "he's toast."

Washington (CNN) -- Here's a simple test for Chris Christie. What is more in the headlines six months from now: the New Jersey governor's new push for tax and school reforms, or the petty political vendettas directed by his inner circle?

If it is the former, the Christie policy agenda, then Tuesday's State of the State address will be remembered as a key step in navigating a political crisis and restoring the governor's luster on both the state and national political stage.

To that end, Christie wasted little time making clear he understood the stakes. Just moments into the speech came this: "Mistakes were clearly made. And as a result, we let down the people we are entrusted to serve. I know our citizens deserve better. Much better. I'm the governor, and I am ultimately responsible for all that happens on my watch -- both good and bad".

He went on to add, "Without a doubt we will cooperate with all appropriate inquiries to ensure this breach of trust does not happen again."

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Now comes the tricky part -- trying to repair any damage to the Christie brand at a time investigations are taking shape and both state and national Democrats are newly emboldened to challenge and chastise the governor.

"Voters are looking for authenticity, someone who will shoot straight," said the GOP pollster and strategist Kristen Soltis Anderson. "This love for straight-talk has been one major piece of why Christie was viewed as such a frontrunner and as very different from your standard-issue politico. That search for authenticity cuts across party lines. Christie left no wiggle room with his strong remarks last Thursday saying he was lied to, and if he's telling the truth, I think it will come to be seen as the best way to deal with a bad situation."

And the potential flipside?

Half-dozen aides and advisers subpoena targets

"Christie has real talent," said veteran Democratic strategist Paul Begala. "But if it is proven that he used the power of government to hurt innocent people for political payback, he really is through."

That question will be explored by a newly formed New Jersey Assembly investigative committee, and its subpoena power will be directed at a least a half-dozen trusted Christie aides and advisers.

At issue, for starters: the decision to punish the Democratic Fort Lee mayor, ostensibly for declining to endorse the Republican governor's re-election bid last year. The punishment: the now-infamous lane closings at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge.

Begala was a veteran of the Bill Clinton 1992 "war room" and character crises early in the primaries: the-then Arkansas governor faced allegations he dodged the draft, made a shady real estate deal on a rural land parcel known as Whitewater and had an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers.

In some ways, closing a few traffic lanes sounds trivial compared to the firestorms Clinton faced, but Begala says there is a fundamental difference that Team Christie ignores at its own peril.

"Christie's alleged wrongdoing is all about using government's power to hurt his own constituents; Clinton's was personal wrongdoing," Begala said. "Christie's alleged 'payback' hurt thousands of innocent people, caused delays in police and paramedic response times, stranded children on school buses. Clinton's conduct hurt his wife and his family, but did not affect the lives of the American people."

There are some similarities that can be drawn between Clinton then and Christie now.

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Clinton's trademark was to turn any attack on him into an effort to deny him the chance to help people with their everyday struggles.

Or as Begala put it, "Clinton was always able to say 'I wake up every morning trying to make your life better. Trying to help you get a job, get a raise, get better health care, put your kids through school and retire with dignity.'"

Depth of bipartisanship now an issue

Christie, in his speech Tuesday, made the case that it was critical for New Jersey to address two of its biggest policy challenges: education and property taxes.

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"Many of our new initiatives recognize a core feature of modern American life: that the quality of education and the quality of life in our communities are inextricably intertwined," the governor told his audience in Trenton.

In the days after Christie's landslide re-election win last November, there was little doubt the legislature's majority Democrats would have no choice but to work closely with the governor.

But the depth of that bipartisan spirit is in question now, as both state and national Democrats sense an opening to permanently tarnish the Christie brand and with it the governor's presidential ambitions.

"Embarrassed," was the theme of a mock State of the State video released by New Jersey Democrats shortly before the governor spoke.

"Christie at a minimum tolerated a climate wherein the power of government was used to punish the innocent," Begala said.

Already, despite his star power, there were questions about Christie's appeal to the most conservative elements of the GOP base.

Clinton, in 1992, was able to win the Democratic nomination despite challenging the party's liberal establishment on several issues. Begala, the Democrat, does not see similar flexibility when he looks at today's GOP.

"The Democrats in 1992 were ready for a Southern moderate," Begala said. "Are the Republicans in 2016 ready for another Northeastern moderate? I don't think so. I think Christie is going to be like Rudy Giuliani was in 2008: great talent, the best debater in the field, great speaker, but no chance."

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Leading Republican strategists don't discount the steepness of the Christie challenge, even before the recent controversies.

Worrying about a second shoe to drop

Now, as one top GOP strategist put it, "What Christie supporters have to worry about is whether there's a second shoe to drop. Whether Bridgegate is simply an aberration or a symptom of a corrupt culture inside the Christie administration."

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This strategist, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said the governor remained a formidable force, albeit one with a tough ideological sell to some hardcore conservatives.

"There's no question the governor can survive this one," this GOP source said. "But if it ever emerges that this is a pattern of misbehavior, he's toast."

Another GOP operative, this one a veteran of national party operations and presidential campaigns, said Christie needed to find a way to make progress on his policy agenda -- meaning make progress with state Democrats in the legislature -- even as he is likely to bristle at the tone and direction of the Democrat-led investigation.

"He has to change the subject," this source said in an e-mail exchange. "Find some common ground with state Democrats to get something big accomplished."

Because of the uncertainty, a top Republican fund-raiser described a sense of pause among some GOP bigwigs.

"It has caused a significant number of fund raisers to pull back," said this source. "But they are not shopping for an alternative yet."

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