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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is doing all the things that a loyal Republican governor would do right now. They're also the things that a leading presidential prospect would do. He is vigorously supporting Republicans across the country who face re-election this year and who might someday support him.

INSKEEP: Christie is head of the Republican Governors Association. He is promoting the GOP agenda as he travels around, raising money for this year's elections. But for Christie, it's a delicate job of trying to call attention to others when so much attention is focused on him.

MONTAGNE: Christie is doing his best to ignore or at least play down the scandal involving a monster traffic jam set off by lane closures at the George Washington Bridge. So compared to Christie's usual style, it's a low-key tour, absent media interviews and with very few photos ops with smiling candidates. Yesterday, he was in Chicago, and NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Gov. Christie had a full day in Chicago. There were morning and evening fundraisers that were closed to the media. But mid-day, Christie appeared at the city's Economic Club. That event was open to reporters; they could watch. It marked the first time in a month that he has appeared in public and made extended remarks.

A moderator from the Economic Club guided the discussion, which started with Christie's first four years as governor and then segued into his goals for his second term. Then, about 15 minutes in, came this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And as you think about it going forward, does the GW Bridge situation impact your ability to execute on those priorities for the state?

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Actually, I'm shocked you brought that up.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: That's the governor you hear clearing his throat. Christie repeated his disappointment in members of his inner circle for their role in calling for the lane closures, which led to massive traffic jams, which led to the scandal. It's alleged it was all an act of political retaliation.

CHRISTIE: If you're a leader, you have to try to get a handle on the story and then take decisive action - which we did, by letting people go and by talking to the public about it.

GONYEA: Yesterday, he was not pressed on, nor did he go into, the timeline of events. Christie is still a very successful fundraiser, bringing in $6 million for the Republican Governors Association's best-ever January total. Still, his once sky high public approval ratings have taken a big hit. When he's on the road, GOP candidates have often avoided appearing with him, sometimes citing scheduling conflicts. Democrats, meanwhile, shadow him with their own road show. They did so on recent visits to Florida and Texas.

In Chicago yesterday, former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland did the honors for the Democrats.

TED STRICKLAND: Either the governor knew and he is lying. Or he is the most inept, incompetent chief executive imaginable.

GONYEA: Democrats hope keeping the issue alive will sink Christie's well-known 2016 presidential ambitions.

In New Jersey, Montclair State University Professor Brigid Harrison says Christie, fresh off a landslide reelection in November, had expected he'd be building up rather than salvaging his image at this time.

BRIGID HARRISON: The perception two months ago would be that January and February would essentially be the launching of Chris Christie for 2016, that he would become not just the governor but the nation's governor.

GONYEA: And she says this is when Christie should be collecting IOU's from local Republican politicians and elected officials that he could cash in during the 2016 presidential primaries.

HARRISON: With candidates keeping him at arms distance, he is not evoking that same kind of political IOU that he would have been had this scandal not broken.

GONYEA: Tomorrow, Governor Christie is on the road again, joining other New Jersey elected officials and business leaders, who travel to Washington for a day of events. But as with his other recent trips, he'll again have to deal with that extra baggage.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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