Oklahoma party chairman Dave Weston spoke for many at a gathering of the Republican National Committee in Washington when he called the probe of Chris Christie’s role in politically motivated traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge a media witch hunt.
That doesn’t mean he’s prepared to back the New Jersey governor in a presidential bid.
“In my mind, he wasn’t a frontrunner to begin with,” Weston said in an interview yesterday. “He gives a great speech.”
Just five months ago, Christie made his case to the RNC that his political success in a Democrat-dominated state could offer lessons for the party and help shape a 2016 White House bid.
While the bridge probe and investigation into his office’s spending of Hurricane Sandy are draining support among Democrats and independent voters, RNC members sought to provide support without making any 2016 commitments. Their responses give Christie some breathing room as he manages multiple investigations and tries to maintain some momentum for a bid to become the next Republican presidential nominee.
“He did what any good governor ought do,” former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said in an interview before a speech to the RNC. “He accepted responsibility for the people under him. I wish we could see that out of our president. He accepts responsibility for no one or nothing.”
Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008 and is considering his own 2016 bid, said there’s no reason to think Christie did anything wrong.
“It’s more media driven than issue driven,” he said. “There’s nobody who has been able to link anything to him. I think he’s going to be fine.”
Doyle Webb, the state chairman in Arkansas, said Christie remains a viable White House candidate.
“I don’t think it tarnishes him at all in the party,” he said. “There’s a little smoke, but not a lot of fire.”
Absent from the meeting were any suggestions Christie should step down as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, as was proposed this week by former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Virginia governor last year who is popular among the party’s limited-government Tea Party wing.
“From the perspective of setting aside this as an issue in other races, it makes sense for him to step aside in that role,” Cuccinelli said on CNN.
As RGA chairman, Christie, 51, is able to expand his national following by traveling to states to raise money and campaign for Republican candidates for governor.
He appeared at events in Florida last weekend to raise money for Governor Rick Scott’s re-election campaign, although all the events were private and they never appeared together publicly.
Steve Scheffler, an RNC member from the state where caucuses traditionally begin the nomination balloting, said Christie has bigger issues in Iowa than controversies in New Jersey. His decision to ease opposition to gay marriage angered religious conservatives that dominate the state party, he said.
“There will be better options than him, at least for Iowa caucus-goers,” he said.
Interviews with local party leaders in Iowa and South Carolina, an early primary state, offered similar assessments.
“Things are going to come out of the national media, and we’re going to judge it at the local level,” said Will Rogers, the party chairman in Polk County, Iowa, that state’s largest. “Whether it’s Chris Christie or anybody, we want to see those candidates here in Iowa. They’re welcome to come here and do retail politicking.”
South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel, who worked on campaigns for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said the national media have “made a big deal” of the Christie matter as states concentrate on gubernatorial and other elections.
Felkel said Republican activists in his home state identify less with Christie and more with the Tea Party mindset of U.S. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, both possible 2016 contenders.
“Long term, he’s still got a great opportunity,” Felkel, speaking by telephone, said of Christie. “Right now, everybody around the country is looking for elected officials to get everything accomplished.”
Party preparations for the next presidential election are already under way, with the full RNC poised today to vote on a package of changes to its nomination calendar and national convention.
Among other things, the changes would provide for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold their contests alone in February 2016, followed by other state primaries and caucuses in subsequent months. How delegates are awarded would be tied to the timing of those contests and the party leadership’s stated goal of moving up its national convention into late June or early July of 2016.