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Chris Christie bridge scandal only underscores his bully image

PoliticsElectionsChris ChristieCommutingGeorge WashingtonWhite House

He has berated questioners at campaign events from California to New Hampshire, called a former Navy SEAL an idiot for criticizing his education policies and, wielding an ice cream cone, dressed down a passerby in a widely broadcast confrontation along the Jersey Shore.

Chris Christie's success owes largely to his image as the unvarnished, let-the-chips-fall antithesis of the buttoned-down politician who can barely breathe without first polling the response. "I am not a focus-group-tested, blow-dried candidate, or governor," Christie said at Thursday's operatic news conference, in which he abjectly and repeatedly apologized for the action of staffers who tied up the George Washington Bridge, apparently to punish a small-town mayor.

"I am who I am," he added, "but I am not a bully."

Many, though, would disagree, including some who otherwise praise Christie's effectiveness as a Republican governor in New Jersey, a Democratic-leaning state with a long history of dysfunction and corruption. It has always been part of the bargain, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll, which gave Christie a gaudy 65% approval rating in December, before the scandal broke open with emails tracing the closure of roads to the bridge — and resulting traffic chaos — to the governor's office.

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More emails released Friday showed the power struggle between Christie appointees to the regional Port Authority, which controls the bridge, and members from New York. The documents also indicated that port police wrongly blamed Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for the access lane closures; earlier emails suggested he was targeted by Christie aides because he failed to endorse the governor's November reelection campaign.

"Chris Christie tried to get things done, so he might have butted some heads together and called other politicians names, but because people don't like politicians it didn't matter," Murray said. "But when it's affecting civilians, that's an entirely different thing."

It is also relevant as Christie takes up his role as chairman of the Republican Governors Assn. and pursues a likely bid for the White House in 2016. The overriding question has always been how the pugnacious governor, who so epitomizes the sock-in-the-nose culture of New Jersey and its politics, will play outside the Garden State; it is one thing to enjoy the likes of Snooki and Tony Soprano as home entertainment and another to witness such brashness in a candidate for the country's highest office.

The still-unfolding bridge scandal, with its overtones of pettiness and vengeance, places the question in bold relief. Even taking Christie at his word, that he was blindsided by the "abject stupidity" of rogue staffers and had nothing to do with the traffic snarl, the political danger is that the episode plays very much to type for the elbows-out governor; an Internet search for "Chris Christie" and "bully" yields millions of results.

The Web is awash in videos showing the glowering governor venting at teachers, reporters, the Navy SEAL — Christie later called him a jerk, refusing to apologize — and the Jersey Shore antagonist. The Democratic National Committee quickly spliced together a compendium, juxtaposing some of those moments with Christie's rebuke of his now-fired staff members. "Governor," it said in a freeze-frame, "the tone is set at the top."

Beyond such verbal sparring, Christie has retaliated against critics and others who crossed him in more substantive ways, stripping security from an ex-governor whom Christie deemed "combative and difficult" and ending state funding for programs run by a Rutgers University professor who angered him over redrawing the state's political boundaries.

READ: Controversial Christie staffer emails

At his Thursday news conference, Christie denied using the powers of his office for political retribution. "Will we fight sometimes and will things get sharp-elbowed? You bet," he said. "It goes both ways, but, you know, retribution as the word? No."

Christie's marathon question-and-answer session was his introduction to many outside New Jersey — his response to the bridge scandal was the top story on nightly news shows and generated headlines across the country — and his humble apology and forceful action could help him politically, assuming there are no more damaging revelations.

"He got up, took a shower, came to the office, canned some people, went on TV and said, 'This is what I know,'" said Stuart Spencer, a longtime GOP strategist. "That's the way to handle something like this."

Spencer helped elect a president, the genial Ronald Reagan, who couldn't be more different from the combative Christie. But that was more than three decades ago. "When Reagan was running, people wanted hope," Spencer said. "The public is in a mood now where they want answers; they want someone who're going to be straight with them."

In that sense, Christie's blunt-spokenness could be an asset, Spencer said, at least in measured dosage.

Paul Maslin, a Democratic strategist, agreed — to a point.

"The better part of it is people saying, 'Not a politician,' 'Tells it like it is,'" Maslin said. "When people have become inured to this procession of tight, carefully parsed words from everybody, even Barack Obama, that seems very refreshing.

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"You just wonder over the long haul if that wears well or not," said Maslin, who would know: He worked for independent presidential candidate Ross Perot in 1992 and watched as the Texas businessman's image evolved from celebrated outsider and truth-teller to curiosity and crank.

As Christie eyes a run for the White House, the George Washington Bridge has become the crossing New Jersey's governor must bear, along with that bullying reputation. "The traffic jam becomes a metaphor for any time Christie steps out of bounds and has a harsh word for anybody," Maslin said. "He's got baggage now, and it won't go away that easily."

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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