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Can Christie focus attention away from bridge scandal?

12:47 PM, Jan 14, 2014   |    comments
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Catalina Camia and Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY

When Gov. Chris Christie outlines his second-term vision for New Jersey on Tuesday afternoon, viewers will be listening for a further apology for the scandal over politically motivated traffic jams that threatens his political future.

Christie has been out of sight since last Thursday, when he apologized repeatedly for his administration's role in revenge-motivated lane closures on the busy George Washington Bridge. He also fired a top aide and cut ties to a political ally, then visited the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee to express his regrets in person.

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The governor's State of the State Address at 3 p.m. ET – normally a chance to outline a new agenda and brag about accomplishments of the past year – gives Christie his first opportunity to change the current conversation that he's a vindictive political bully.

Still to come: Christie's inaugural address on Jan. 21 when the Republican is sworn in for a second term and his presentation Feb. 25 of a new budget to the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Can the governor stop the steady drip of scandal-tinged headlines?

"The larger political problem for Christie is one of escalation," says Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "He's gone from being called a bully, which most voters didn't seem to mind, to accusations of abuse of power, which may have a much more lasting negative impact.

"So while Christie used to be seen as the schoolyard thug, a big kid picking on smaller kids, now he's portrayed as a vicious teacher, singling out a child for torment," Dworkin says. "It's not just bullying. It's abuse of power, and it is a whole new narrative that he has to combat."

Christie's speech Tuesday will include new education policy proposals, an area the governor focused on in his first term. Having already battled teacher's unions over tenure rules and merit pay, Christie plans to call for a longer school day and school year.

Since Christie's nearly two-hour news conference last week, investigations into his administration have widened:

• The state Assembly will convene a special panel with subpoena power to investigate the lane closures, which tied up traffic for days on the Fort Lee end of the bridge. More than 2,000 pages of documents suggesting politics was behind the traffic jams were released. These documents also show that Christie's top aides tried to thwart reporters who inquired about the lane closures.

• Ads promoting tourism in New Jersey in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, featuring Christie and his family, are the subject of a separate investigation by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. The ads, paid for with disaster funds, appeared on TV in the run-up to the November election, when Christie easily won a new term.

• Christie's standing in New Jersey has taken a hit since copies of e-mails between Christie aides and appointees became public last week. About half of New Jersey's adults think Christie knew his staff was involved in the scandal known as Bridgegate, according to a Monmouth University/Asbury Park Press poll released Monday. And 51% say they don't think Christie has been "completely honest" about what he knows about the lane closures, the poll found.

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