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Christie takes scandal damage test with election fundraising

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gestures as he speaks to media and homeowners about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy in Manahawk
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gestures as he speaks to media and homeowners about the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Sandy in Manahawk

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first real test of the damage to Chris Christie's chances of being the Republican nominee for president in 2016 from the "Bridgegate" scandal could come during the next few days.

Christie is scheduled to attend a $1,000-per-ticket reception for New Jersey Republican House candidate Steve Lonegan on Thursday. He then will head to Florida for a series of weekend events aimed at raising money for Republican Governor Rick Scott's re-election campaign, plus a meeting with wealthy Republican donors from all over the United States.

Interviews with a half-dozen Republican strategists, donors and operatives indicate that if Christie is interested in a bid for the White House, as many suspect, he has some work to do.

He needs to reassure big-money donors - even those who have seen him as the party's best hope of winning the race to be Democratic President Barack Obama's successor - that the scandal in which his aides apparently created massive traffic jams to get back at a Democratic politician in New Jersey will not grow enough to destroy his prospects.

"Everyone is worried," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "But the donors are going to take a wait-and-see approach. They're not cutting off the spigot yet."

The Florida events were planned before emails released last week indicated that top Christie aides orchestrated lane closures last September on a stretch of highway leading to the George Washington Bridge, possibly to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had declined to endorse him in last year's gubernatorial elections.

Christie has said he did not know about his staff's role in the lane closures before last week's revelations.

The traffic scandal heated up just as Christie's team was starting to raise his profile as chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) and allow him to play a star-making role in gathering money for candidates in the 2014 midterm elections. The elections will decide 36 state governorships and control of the U.S. Congress.

No individual candidate has publicly backed away from fundraising with Christie, but Republican governors aside from Scott have remained quiet about any plans to appear with him, in effect distancing themselves from the "Bridgegate" scandal.

Many of Christie's most prominent financial backers have also been largely silent since the scandal broke.

An exception has been Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who told Politico that he approved of Christie's apologetic press conference last week. On Wednesday, Langone told The Washington Post that enthusiasm for Christie among major Republican donors "has never wavered."

Other major backers of Christie, including New Jersey businessman and philanthropist Woody Johnson, owner of the National Football League's New York Jets, have mostly been silent.

Christie - who raised more than $12 million last year in easily winning re-election in the mostly Democratic state - is regarded as a powerful fundraiser, thanks in part to his ties to Wall Street as a former lobbyist for the securities industry. A group of Republican donors, including Langone, unsuccessfully tried to convince him to run for president in 2012.

"Donors really like Chris Christie, especially Wall Street donors," Republican strategist and lobbyist John Feehery said.

But if the state and federal investigations into the traffic scandal gain momentum, some Republican donors will look to others to lead the party's fundraising this year and to be contenders for the presidential nomination, Feehery said.

"If it turns out he's a huge big liar" about not knowing about the lane-closure plan in advance, "that's when they find somebody else" to follow, he said.

STANDING BEHIND CHRISTIE

As chairman of the RGA, Christie was planning to tour the country raising money and campaigning for several of the 22 Republican governors up for re-election. It could give him a platform to promote himself while gathering potential allies and donors for a White House bid.

But one political casualty of the scandal was the staffer who was expected to help turn Christie into a national fundraising dynamo.

Last week, Christie dismissed aide Bill Stepien from the RGA, where Stepien was expected to assist in building a national network of political and financial support. Stepien, Christie's former campaign manager, had worked at the RGA for less than one month. Christie has not announced a replacement.

RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the group is standing behind Christie.

"Governor Christie is a very effective fundraiser and leader for the RGA and there's no doubt that will continue this year as we aggressively focus on 36 gubernatorial elections," Thompson said.

Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who briefly ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, played down fears that the New Jersey scandal would seriously damage Christie, who is well-liked by many in the party's establishment but viewed as not conservative enough by many on the influential far-right wing of the party.

"I know Chris Christie, and I would be astonished if there were any evidence indicating he knew about these troubling events" in advance, Pawlenty told Reuters. "I can't imagine that he would have known and condoned these decisions and these actions."

Meanwhile, as Democrats in New Jersey's legislature are investigating the traffic scandal, Democratic strategists are watching for clues that the governor's relationship with Republican donors has changed.

"Donors are inherently risk-averse," said one Democratic strategist with experience on two presidential campaigns. "When things are going well, they're going really well. And when they're not going well, they're nervous."

(Editing by David Lindsey, Martin Howell and Grant McCool)

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