WASHINGTON (AP) — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become a Republican star by casting himself as a brash, straight-talking politician who transcends partisan politics to work for regular people. But the escalating traffic jam controversy that has ensnared his administration could damage the governor's national reputation and allow opponents to portray him as a ruthless bully.
"I am who I am. But I am not a bully," Christie declared during a lengthy news conference Thursday in which he apologized for the closing of highway lanes leading up to the George Washington Bridge last fall, a move apparently orchestrated by his underlings as political retribution.
The governor fired a top aide, jettisoned his chief political adviser and took responsibility for his administration's connections to the traffic tie-ups in September.
Christie adamantly denied any personal "knowledge or involvement" in the lane closures, a passionate pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid an ongoing investigation. Democrats and Republicans said the governor's 2016 presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts Thursday's denials.
"Unless something new develops, I think he'll survive," said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican whom Christie has described as a mentor. "But if there's a pattern of these things, if other incidents emerge with similar characteristics, that's going to be a real problem."
David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama's campaigns, said Christie handled the news conference "as well as he could."
"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day," Axelrod wrote on Twitter.
Christie said he was "blindsided" by the incident, an acknowledgment that could undercut his reputation as a take-charge manager.
Republicans defended the governor, who faced reporters' questions for nearly two hours and then traveled to Fort Lee, N.J., near the entrance to the bridge, to personally apologize to the mayor and community residents.
"He apologized, took full responsibility and acted decisively in firing those responsible," said Fred Malek, a top Republican financial donor. "If anything, it serves to reinforce his image as a strong and effective governor."
Yet the issue is far from over for Christie, an ambitious politician already working to raise his national profile ahead of the next presidential contest.
Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature could spend months investigating the case, forcing Christie and his staff to defend themselves. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is reviewing the case and the Port Authority's inspector general is also investigating. In Washington, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has demanded answers about the debacle.
Political strategists suggested the episode offers future opponents a readymade line of attack — who likes a traffic jam? — that strikes at the very heart of the inclusive political brand Christie has worked to cultivate. The lane closures clogged one of the world's busiest bridges for days, delaying children from getting to school and first responders from emergencies.
Christie seemed to acknowledge the potential damage, saying he values bipartisanship and compromise despite the political retribution his administration may have exacted against a Democratic mayor who didn't endorse him.
"This is the exception, it is not the rule of what's happened over the last four years in this administration," Christie said. "I've worked with elected officials on both sides of the aisle."
The bridge affair also reinforces a negative stereotype from critics who say Christie's no-holds-barred approach makes him nothing more than a bully in a state known for its tough guy politics. And it gives conservatives another reason to dislike Christie, whose Superstorm Sandy embrace of President Barack Obama during the waning days of the 2012 presidential election generated questions about the Republican's loyalty.
For Christie, the scandal could disrupt an ambitious start to a second term that was designed to be a springboard to a national campaign.
Declaring victory on election night, Christie told supporters, "I know that if we can do this in Trenton, N.J., maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now — see how it's done."
In less than two weeks, Christie plans to celebrate his inauguration at Ellis Island, gateway for millions of immigrants and so a symbolic location designed to showcase his inclusiveness and ability to appeal to a broad swath of voters. He will outline his second-term priorities in the coming weeks and begin an aggressive national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Whether the traffic scandal will define Christie's future is hard to tell. But it raises the question of whether Christie can become a breakthrough figure in the Republican Party at a time when many Americans bemoan dysfunctional government or simply become part of the gridlock.
"Abuse of power by government officials is wrong, whether it's closing lanes in Fort Lee, using the IRS to target political opponents, or waiving the law regarding Obamacare," said Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots, lumping together the New Jersey scandal with incidents that have dogged Obama's second term. "Gov. Christie held some subordinates accountable. Time will tell whether this is enough."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ken Thomas and Steve Peoples are covering the 2016 presidential campaign for The Associated Press.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas and Steve Peoples at https://twitter.com/sppeoples