Can Christie Bridge the Scandal to 2016?

The New Jersey governor has to tread carefully.

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Will "bridgegate" derail Chris Christie's presidential aspirations for 2016?

It certainly could, particularly if information emerges that the popular governor of New Jersey knew about the plan to deliberately snarl traffic on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Memorial Bridge. Christie has burned his bridge, so to speak, on this. He has openly and specifically denied any knowledge of it. If we learn he lied, he's toast.

But if this doesn't happen, he'll probably, in the words of David Axelrod, longtime political advisor to President Obama, "live to fight another day."

Fight, perhaps. But win? That's a more complicated question. He has taken all the right steps – are you taking notes, President Obama? He held a two-hour all-comers press conference. He jettisoned longtime trusted aides. He promised further reforms. And, most importantly, he took responsibility.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

His performance on Thursday could be critical to his future. The B word – "bully" – has long dogged Christie's political career. He seems to know this and has attempted to address it in a variety of ways even before this story broke.

He regularly reminds voters he has a direct and blunt personality, as if that would slip their minds. He bridles at claims he intimidated other elected officials, and he's executed what can fairly be called an aggressive outreach effort to Democrats in the state legislature. Indeed, Christie said at the press conference that more than 60 Democrats endorsed his campaign for governor last year.

But now all that bipartisan bonhomie could be in danger because aides retaliated against a politician of the other party whom Christie barely knows and says he didn't ask for an endorsement in a race the governor won by nearly 23 points. People compare this to Nixon's "Checkers Speech." It's more like Watergate – needlessly harassing opponents to gain further advantage in an election that never was in doubt.

And make no mistake, Christie's trump card is that he, alone among Republican politicians, enjoys significant crossover appeal. One recent national poll found Christie to be America's "hottest" politician and another, conducted by CNN, found him to be Republicans' best chance, by far, to defeat Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Did Christie Handle 'Bridgegate' Correctly?]

The CNN poll also revealed a coalition of supporters that would seem particularly vulnerable if the narrative of Christie-as-bully goes forward. He won nearly six in 10 independents against Hillary Clinton and polled above 50 percent among suburbanites and older voters. All that could be lost – or seriously compromised – by this, even if no direct connection to the governor ever is established.

And it won't be easy. What was lost and can never be recovered from this is the "benefit of the doubt." The press conference was telling in this regard. Christie called on reporters by their first names – statehouse press corps are notoriously close with the politicians they cover – and they peppered him with personal and, in many cases, quite aggressive questions.

He took his medicine on Thursday and patiently parried with them long into the afternoon. He will have to maintain this patience for a considerable period of time going forward. An eruption over any question over any aspect of this story, and that support among independents, suburbanites and older voters is in danger. It is not known if he has that much discipline.

And discipline will be key as the governor, riding so high in the polls this time last week, now finds himself in a two-front battle for his political survival. If he truly had nothing to do with bridgegate, he'll get past that part of it. But if he lashes out, the other part – the part made up of people not normally disposed to vote for Republicans for president – will be gone forever.

  • Read Susan Milligan: Chris Christie's Self-Centered Bridge Scandal Press Conference
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  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.