Christie tries to stop the bleeding

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Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief after Gov. Chris Christie's (R-N.J.) nearly two-hour stem-winder Wednesday, where he apologized and forcefully addressed the bridge scandal that has roiled his administration.

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GOP strategists and donors praised the way Christie took back control of the story, saying the press conference was exactly the right first step in dealing with a scandal that threatens to torpedo his 2016 hopes.

But while Christie might have stopped the bleeding, observers say the extent to which he contains the political damage depends on what other revelations emerge.

"Assuming there are no other shoes to drop and assuming there are not some other bombshells waiting to be revealed, I think he handled it about as well as he could have," said South Carolina GOP strategist Joel Sawyer, a former aide to now-Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who was with the then-governor when he held his now-infamous press conference admitting to an extramarital affair. 

Unlike Sanford — who completed a political comeback last year by winning election to Congress — Christie wasn't teary eyed before the press. The brash, straight-talking style that has endeared him to the national GOP was on full display.

"The fact that he can go into a room like that and be himself and it be very natural works in his favor," Sawyer said.

One major GOP donor said Christie’s direct approach might have bolstered his standing with members of the party’s fundraising circuit. 

"I think it was a home-run performance, very direct and very credible — exactly what I think I was looking for and other people in the donor community were looking for," said Fred Malek, an influential GOP adviser and donor to several core groups.

"One person [donor] said to me, it’s easy to look good when everything’s going your way. It’s quite another thing when you are faced with a crisis, when the wind is in your face instead of at your back," Malek said.

Still, there's no question some of the shine has been taken off Christie, who had been seen as a front-runner for the GOP nomination in 2016.

The next several days will be crucial for the governor as he faces mounting questions about the actions of Bridget Anne Kelly, a close aide who apparently plotted to close lanes of the heavily trafficked George Washington Bridge as retribution against the Fort Lee, N.J., mayor who didn’t back Christie's reelection.

Christie fired Kelly on Thursday, denied knowledge of her actions and said he was “humiliated and embarrassed” by what had happened.

Still, others saw a more raw side of Christie that they said could cause him trouble in a run for the White House.

Katon Dawson, who managed former Gov. Mike Huckabee's (R-Ark.) 2008 presidential race, said while he'd give Christie an "A+" for his press conference, the scandal could bolster some of the reservations conservatives about him. 

"He's kind of known as a bully. This story, true or not, feeds into that narrative," said Dawson. "I think he handled it perfectly, but if he's a bully, this kind of fits."

"Social conservatives will still be suspect of him," Dawson said. “But what he did do here was, he was extremely human today on television, and he’ll get score points for that."

Dawson said that many in his native South Carolina, an important early primary state, might be impressed with Christie’s candor.

"He apologized, and that goes a long way to South Carolina Republicans," he said.

Others disagreed, arguing Christie’s gruff persona might not play well in some parts of the country.

"I think he's going to have a hard time in the South, I really do,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC News on Thursday. “The edge is part of it. You know, he's a little too slick by half."

The biggest fault many saw in Christie’s Wednesday performance was that the long-running event provided extra fodder for the media and his political opponents to check for even any minor inconsistency to further the story and tie him more directly to the decision to close the bridge lanes. 

"He performed triage as best he could, but it’s still a net loss for him,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “What makes this interesting is this is the first time I’ve ever seen the governor back into a corner, where he comes out in a press conference and doesn’t do better at the end of it than when he started."

"The longer he went on, the more he raised questions about the answers he was giving," Murray said. "And that means there’s going to be more questions that are going to be asked by the media and by the public about what he knew and when he knew it and what kind of administration he runs."

Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson said Christie handled it "as well as he possibly could" but should have left the podium earlier.

"He ran a little long," said Wilson. "It sort of felt like it went from confessional to explanation to masochism by the second hour." 

New Jersey Republican consultant Chris Russell said it was necessary for Christie to address every question in the room.

"He did what a leader is supposed to do — he took responsibility, said the buck stops here and took action against two people very close to him," he said. 

"I don't think it's over," Russell added. "I think he knows it's not over, but you couldn't ask for more from him in his performance at the press conference."

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