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Facing scandal at home, Christie set to launch national tour

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie waves to guests as he attends the Super Bowl Hand-Off Ceremony at the Boulevard fan zone ahead of Super B
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie waves to guests as he attends the Super Bowl Hand-Off Ceremony at the Boulevard fan zone ahead of Super B

By Gabriel Debenedetti

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Battling investigations over the "Bridgegate" scandal in his home state, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie plans to embark on a national tour that will give him a chance to raise money for fellow Republicans, woo conservatives and show party leaders that he is not politically toxic.

Christie - widely viewed as the leading contender for the 2016 Republican nomination for president before the scandal over traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge exploded a month ago - plans to spend the next month crisscrossing the nation as chairman of the Republican Governors Association (RGA).

In a tour that will test whether his power as a party fundraiser has diminished, Christie is scheduled to appear at fundraisers for Republican candidates, party strategy sessions and other meetings in Illinois, Texas, New York, Maryland, Georgia and Washington, D.C.

One of Christie's stops will be at a meeting of the influential Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The group snubbed Christie last year, in a move that many saw as retribution for the governor's kind words for Democratic President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which struck New Jersey just before the 2012 presidential election.

CPAC officials did not respond to Reuters' questions about their decision to invite Christie. Their invitation to him comes as many Republican leaders appear to be keeping an arm's length from Christie without disavowing him, hoping that the New Jersey scandal subsides.

Christie has denied knowing in advance about his aides' orders to close lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey in September. His aides were alleged to have carried out the closures as political retribution against a local official who declined to endorse Christie for re-election.

At least three Christie aides have left his camp amid federal and state investigations into the lane closures, which created traffic jams over four days. Christie's popularity in state and national polls has dropped dramatically, raising doubts about his viability as a potential contender for the White House.

But "unless the facts change, I don't see major Republican party officials or major donors treating Governor Christie differently from how they have been" since the initial news broke, said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, noting that the upcoming trip will give Christie a chance to boost their confidence.

"Could he use an existing travel plan to try to relaunch himself and highlight his own record and fix areas he wants to? Sure. CPAC is probably part of that," Mackowiak said.

SUPPORT FOR CHRISTIE

Christie's office referred questions to the RGA, which emphasized that the fundraisers he will attend in Illinois and Texas have been planned since December - and so are not part of any plan to give Christie what amounts to a comeback tour.

The RGA, which is made up of the country's 29 Republican state governors, has affirmed its confidence in Christie since the scandal began last month.

But in light of the scandal, some supporters and Republican Party contributors privately have expressed concerns about Christie's ability to raise money for Republican candidates for state governorships, even with his longtime close ties to Wall Street donors.

Christie's first stops on his tour will be in conservative Texas, where he will attend RGA events in Dallas and Fort Worth on Thursday. On February 11, Christie will speak at the Economic Club of Chicago and attend RGA events that include a fundraiser.

The following week he will speak at the National Republican Senatorial Committee retreat in New York City - home to more of his biggest donors - before heading to the National Governors Association meeting in Washington three days later.

During the first week of March he will court the Republican Party's conservative wing at CPAC's meeting just outside of Washington. He then will speak at the American Enterprise Institute's World Forum in Georgia on March 8.

"CPAC is helpful for him now. He needs conservatives to help him in his current crisis, and he's likely running for president and doesn't want to earn the ire of conservatives more than he already has," Mackowiak said.

The CPAC meeting also will feature other potential contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

(Editing by David Lindsey and Cynthia Osterman)

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