New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie faces one of his first major tests since his backyard political scandal erupted: reassuring top Republican donors that he has taken steps to address allegations of political payback in his home state and that he remains a viable presidential contender for the party's establishment.
Christie, who leads the Republican Governors Association, will travel to Florida this weekend for a series of fundraisers to help Republican Gov. Rick Scott. It will be his first out-of-state trip since the scandal involving lane closures at the George Washington Bridge escalated.
The itinerary listing some of Florida's most exclusive addresses will give Christie an opportunity to convince longtime financial supporters and wealthy newcomers that the scandal has not hurt his stature as a potential 2016 presidential contender. Many Republicans have come to Christie's defense and credited him with taking responsibility, although some GOP leaders say his future will depend on whether his account of what happened is accurate.
"I have heard from a few donors and their general feeling is that Governor Christie is being truthful, has fully accepted responsibility and has acted decisively in firing those responsible for this awful act," said Fred Malek, the governors association's finance chairman. "Their enthusiasm and support for Christie is only heightened by his display of leadership under duress."
Christie plans to raise money for Scott at an Orlando luncheon whose host committee includes John D. Rood, a Jacksonville real estate developer; Orlando attorney Pat Christiansen; and businessman Bill Heavener, a co-chairman of Mitt Romney's Florida fundraising team in 2012.
A second event is planned at the Palm Beach home of Pepe Fanjul Jr., executive vice president of Florida Crystals, a prominent U.S. sugar producer. It's being followed by a fundraiser at the Fort Lauderdale home of Bill Rubin, the president of a lobbying firm and a longtime friend of Scott's.
On Sunday, Christie will attend two fundraisers in Palm Beach and meet with top financial supporters at a gathering organized by Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, who urged the governor to consider a late entry into the 2012 presidential race. The event, which was first reported by The Washington Post, will allow some of Christie's longtime supporters to huddle following the governor's sweeping re-election in November.
As Christie spends time along Florida's coast, the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey and the state Legislature are looking into a scheme that shut down lanes to the major bridge connecting New York and New Jersey for four days in September, creating massive traffic jams. The plan apparently was hatched by Christie's aides as a political vendetta, possibly because the city of Fort Lee's Democratic mayor wouldn't endorse the Republican governor's re-election.
The governor apologized and fired a top aide but told reporters he had "no knowledge or involvement" in the incident. He has not been implicated in the case, yet the scandal could dog him in the weeks ahead and cause consternation for his financial backers.
Scott, one of the nation's most vulnerable Republican governors, also will receive help on Friday night at a Naples, Fla., fundraiser headlined by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Scott is expected to face a formidable challenge this year from former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as a Democrat.
As the New Jersey incident gained national attention earlier this month, Scott's campaign contemplated canceling the fundraisers but ultimately decided to go ahead.
During the private meetings, how Christie addresses the imbroglio could be critical for financial rainmakers who are beginning to take stock of a potentially large Republican field. Two prominent Florida Republicans - former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio - are viewed as potential candidates.
"Is Governor Christie someone I would consider? Absolutely. Yes. But I would consider other people," said Ned Siegel, a Boca Raton, Fla., developer and prominent Republican donor who is helping Scott's campaign.
The 2016 presidential campaign will begin in earnest following November's midterm elections. Insiders suggest that any prospective candidate will need to raise $50 million to $100 million by the end of the 2016 primaries. Separately, aspiring presidential candidates will need wealthy donors willing to fund super PACs that will advocate for the candidate outside the confines of a presidential campaign.
Democrats have tried to use the bridge scandal to tarnish Christie, who cruised to re-election against an underfunded Democratic opponent.
Thomas reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in Boston contributed to this report.