How Bridgegate Is Helping Christie With Conservatives

Media scrutiny of the New Jersey governor is earning him some sympathy points.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his budget address for fiscal year 2015 to the Legislature, February 25, 2014 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. (National Journal)

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tries to overcome conservative skepticism about his record, he's finding a new ally in convincing the base he's not all that bad: the media.

The revelation that Christie's top aides improperly closed traffic lanes in an act of political retribution has damaged his reputation and led pundits to question his electability. But to many rock-ribbed Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, the press's withering scrutiny of the governor's role in "Bridgegate" makes him a sympathetic figure — just the latest in a long line of GOP leaders to bear the unfair attacks of a biased media.

The changed attitude was apparent at this week's conference, an event that only a year ago snubbed the blue-state Republican over his chumminess with President Obama and outspoken criticism of congressional Republicans looking to tighten spending for Hurricane Sandy. This year, Christie spoke and delivered a well-received speech that ended with a standing ovation among the thousands who packed the room.

In interviews, many CPAC attendees cautioned they're still wary of Christie's moderation on issues like gun control and his past chummy relationship with Obama. Few named him their top 2016 choice. But several attendees offered that Christie has an opportunity to repair some of the damage done to his relationship with conservatives, thanks to the media's incessant focus on the governor.

"The media attacks on Christie have helped him with Republicans and conservatives who were, to some degree, suspicious of him because the media liked him so much," said Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative pundit.

"I think he won a lot of friends because they can see that the establishment liberal media were attacking him. That always causes people to sit up and take notice," added former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a rumored presidential candidate himself.

Christie spoke about how Republicans need to offer a more constructive message to win elections, and avoided any explicit references to Bridgegate. But his frequent admonitions toward the media suggested it wasn't far from his mind.

"We have to stop letting the media define who we are and what we stand for," said Christie, a theme he returned to several times throughout the speech. "When we're talking about what we're for ... our ideas win."

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Christie still would face fundamental challenges in a Republican presidential nominating fight. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Thursday found nearly three in 10 Republicans would not consider voting for him for president. For comparison, only 20 percent of Republicans said they wouldn't consider fellow probable White House hopeful Marco Rubio, whose immigration-reform efforts have caused him his own trouble among conservatives.

The media-enabled reset should help Christie, but conservatives caution he still has a lot of work to do before returning to their good graces. Many attendees said the governor should view the current moment as an opportunity to articulate a vision that conservatives can rally behind. In other words, his reprieve is only temporary.

"Ultimately, conservatives will vote on the basis of philosophy, so it's up to him ... to explain why, philosophically, conservatives should support him," Bolton said.

In interviews with rank-and-file conservatives, most indicated that although they're open to a Christie candidacy, he has a lot to prove to conservatives before they support him.

"He's not a rock-ribbed conservative, and everyone knows that," said Brian Hampton, a 70-year-old Republican from Arlington, Va.

Chris Addington, a 56-year-old New Hampshire Republican who attended CPAC with his son, said he questions Christie's record on gun control. "In general, you have conservatives who have concerns about him," he said.

Others acknowledged that although they were upset with the media's coverage of Christie, it hadn't radically changed their thinking about him. Anthony Fama of Massachusetts said that the media's bias "couldn't be more obvious," adding that he felt "embarrassed" for them. But the 49-year-old said sympathy for the governor won't last. "I think it's something that will be short-lived," he said.