TRENTON, New Jersey — This is the year Chris Christie was planning to be more than just New Jersey's governor. Yet it turns out that high-profile investigations into his administration and campaign operation in a political payback case could make advancing his agenda a challenge.
Christie came off a decisive re-election victory in November already in the spotlight and with opportunities for some signature accomplishments. He became chairman of the Republican Governors Association, making him the chief fundraiser for the group in a year featuring 36 gubernatorial elections. His state hosted the first Super Bowl played outdoors in a cold-weather locale. The stage was set for him to keep gaining exposure ahead of a possible 2016 presidential bid and to claim a mandate on imposing his policies at home in New Jersey.
The spotlight has indeed intensified for Christie — but it's due to scandal.
"This has become a major distraction for him and his team," said David Gergen, a political analyst who served as a White House adviser to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton. "They are having to fight back on various fronts."
Last month, emails revealed that Christie's staff was involved in ordering a September shutdown of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge — apparently for political retribution against a Democratic mayor. The result was massive gridlock in the community of Fort Lee. Christie has denied any involvement.
Also last month, Hoboken Democratic Mayor Dawn Zimmer said two members of Christie's Cabinet told her the city's Superstorm Sandy aid would be tied to her support of a real estate development project. Christie's administration has denied her accusations.
Christie has had few public appearances in New Jersey since a nearly two-hour news conference in mid-January when he denied knowing about the planning or execution of the lane closings.
He's been more visible outside the state, with recent RGA fundraising trips to Florida and Texas and a trip to Chicago planned next week. The events are private.
So far, there is no evidence that Republican donors are abandoning Christie. Some, in fact, have come away impressed by the personal strength Christie seems to be exhibiting in a crisis.
"He has a very thick hide," Gergen said. "In his public appearances, he's not letting this slow him down."
But Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist, says that in his state, which has the first presidential caucus, Christie's key supporters are now split on whether they think he's a viable presidential candidate. "There are too many people who are now dubious about whether they want to stay on the Chris Christie boat," Schmidt said.
Even without a political crisis, serving as RGA chairman means he's away from his state frequently.
Gov. Bobby Jindal was out of Louisiana 42 days on RGA business in the 12 months he served as the group's chairman, before Christie took over in November, according to an Associated Press analysis of his schedules.
Jindal appeared on two Sunday morning news talk shows last week saying he did not believe Christie should step aside from his RGA role. He said the chairman is not as important to the group as critics would believe. Still, Democrats have noted that when Christie was in Texas, neither current Gov. Rick Perry nor Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott appeared with him.
Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie was criticizing Christie for leaving the state at all.
"Chris Christie is not interested in being honest with us, in addressing the scandals he created, or, even, in doing his job," he said in a statement last week. "Instead, he is leaving New Jersey behind to take up residency in a state of denial."
Analysts see 2014 as a key year for Christie at home: If he decides to run for president, it could be his last full year as governor. His policy to-do list includes largely leftover items from his first term, such as cutting taxes and giving local governments more ways to keep spending down now that they are not allowed to raise property taxes by more than 2 percent a year without a vote. Several of Christie's priorities are things that leaders of the Democrat-led Legislature have already resisted.
Now, New Jersey Democrats, who already had been crafting strategies to counter a second-term governor, are more emboldened to push back against Christie's policy priorities, as well as the day-to-day parts of being governor, such as his political appointments.
"What's changed is that now we're going to be more assertive in advancing our agenda," said state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a veteran Democrat.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, has indefinitely postponed a confirmation hearing on Kevin O'Dowd, Christie's chief of staff and nominee for state attorney general. O'Dowd's name has surfaced in emails subpoenaed in the bridge scandal, and he is among 20 people and organizations close to Christie included in a more sweeping round of legislative subpoenas.
"We can't have a hearing until we have all the subpoenas to see where Kevin O'Dowd falls in this process," said Lesniak, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary committee. "Then it will be up to Kevin and the governor to decide whether they want him subjected under oath to questions on the bridge closings and the use or abuse of Sandy aid money."
New Jersey's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger of Newark, came out with an editorial Sunday saying it regretted endorsing him for re-election in 2013, citing the recent "scandal train" tied to him.
Christie's difficulties are so much the story of the day in New Jersey that when U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews announced last week he was resigning — a decision that came as the House Ethics Committee looks into allegations that he used donor money for personal expenses — he was asked about Christie. The Democrat was quick to point out that he disagrees with Christie on many things but said he had empathy for the governor.
"I think he's in the middle of this vortex of blood sport," he said, "where anything he says or does is going to be attacked because it's good for ratings."
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield, New Jersey Associated Press writer Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.