Chris Christie's biggest hurdle in a 2016 presidential run is not just surviving the ongoing investigations into the politically fraught traffic jam caused by his administration, but convincing Republican donors that there will be no more surprises.
As the New Jersey governor mingled with some of the Republican Party's most influential fundraisers at Mitt Romney's three-day political retreat here in Utah, there was still palpable uneasiness about the swirl of investigations surrounding Christie and concern that he could be too damaged to be the Republican Party's nominee in 2016.
But Christie tried forcefully to dismiss those concerns when he addressed a group of 300 donors during a speech Saturday, which was closed to the media. One of the first questions posed to him was whether the controversy over his administration's closure of roads leading to the George Washington Bridge last September — in apparent retribution for the refusal of a local mayor to endorse Christie's reelection — was behind him.
Christie replied that he didn't get to "decide that," according to accounts from people in the room, but he framed the bridge scandal as a media conspiracy against him after he won 61% of the vote in his gubernatorial race in a Democratic state. His opponents, he said, were trying to prevent him from getting any "more altitude."
He insisted that he now had a firm command of the facts and that donors would not find out anything new: "Don't be so nervous," he said at one point.
"I'm not that worried about it. I hope none of you are worried about it, though I expect some of you are," Christie told the crowd. "But you'll get over it. It will be fine."
Tellingly, he closed his remarks by thanking Romney — who has inspired deep loyalty among his donors and could have great influence over which candidate they support in 2016 — for being his "strongest defender" as the bridge mess unfolded.
"Whenever you're under attack in a significant way that we have been," Christie told the group, "what you find out is who your real friends are."
Christie still faces months of investigations by a special New Jersey legislative committee and a second probe by the local U.S. attorney's office. The governor has denied that he knew of the road closures in advance of the four-day traffic jam, and has blamed them on aides.
Christie joined four other potential presidential candidates at the former Massachusetts governor's retreat in Park City last week, which occurred as
many Republican donors are hanging back from promising fidelity to any one potential candidate.
At this time four years ago, many of Romney's donors were quietly helping to build the finance network that would vault him to the nomination, lining up early dollars that would establish him as the front-runner once he formed his exploratory committee in 2011.
But donors said they see little evidence of that important groundwork going on for the potential 2016 contenders; Christie's difficulties and the extended deliberations by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among other circumstances, have frozen many donors in place.
That could mean a more protracted primary battle for Republicans next year. "I think you'll have more candidates chasing the same number of donors and dollars, and less time to do it," former Romney campaign finance chairman Spencer Zwick said. "It's basic supply and demand."