By MICHAEL J. MISHAK
2014-01-19 03:42 AM
MIAMI (AP) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie left behind a political scandal back home to raise money for fellow Republicans in Florida this weekend.
As chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie was headlining a series of events to help Florida's governor, Rick Scott, and the state party.
The events, closed to reporters, give Christie his first chance since the scandal escalated to reassure big financial donors that he remains a viable presidential contender for 2016.
The apparent political payback scheme caused massive traffic jams last fall by closing local access lanes to the George Washington Bridge, one of the world's busiest bridges.
Christie apologized and fired a top aide, and told reporters he had "no knowledge or involvement" in the matter. Still, with investigations moving ahead at the federal and state level, the issue could follow him for some time and cause consternation for his financial backers.
Many Republicans have come to Christie's defense and credited him with taking responsibility for the scandal, although some party leaders say his future will depend on whether his account of what happened proves accurate.
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant, said donors he's spoken with feel Christie's rising star was tainted by the controversies.
"The jury is definitely now out," he said. "He's gone from an A-plus to a B. He's not going to be the presidential nominee in waiting. We're in a watch-and-see phase."
Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to use the bridge scandal to tarnish Christie. The New Jersey governor had emerged as a strong contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination after performing well among groups that typically lean Democratic, including women , Hispanics and blacks.
Backed by local elected officials, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, held a press conference near Christie's Orlando fundraiser to tie the New Jersey governor to Scott, one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country.
"Republican governors have been touting themselves as the grown-ups and the ones that have the ability to lead us forward," the Florida congresswoman said in an interview. "The guy they chose as their leader is Chris Christie, who has been characterized as a maniacal bully by Republicans and who was willing to take out retribution against not the elected officials who wouldn't endorse him but ... his own constituents."
Republicans countered that Democrats were trying to distract from their own party's leading gubernatorial contender, former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose tenure coincided with the Great Recession. Crist was elected governor as a Republican, but switched parties after leaving office because he felt the Republican Party has become too conservative.
"Under Governor Charlie Crist, Florida's unemployment spiked to record high numbers and jobs disappeared from the state in droves," said RGA spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. "This weekend, Charlie Crist and Florida Democrats want to talk about anything other than their failures."
Christie planned to raise money for Scott and Florida Republicans at a series of events over the weekend.
On Sunday, Christie will meet with major financial supporters at a gathering organized by Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of the Home Depot retail chain, who urged the governor to consider a late entry into the 2012 presidential race. The event, which was first reported by The Washington Post, will allow some of Christie's longtime supporters to huddle.
During the private meetings, how Christie addresses the imbroglio could be critical for financial rainmakers who are beginning to take stock of a potentially large Republican field. Two prominent Florida Republicans -- former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio -- are viewed as potential candidates.