By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the road to the White House in 2016 suddenly has gotten bumpy - but it's not closed.
The blunt-talking Christie, an early favorite in the upcoming Republican presidential sweepstakes, tried to put a brewing scandal behind him on Thursday during an apologetic news conference in which he announced the firing of a top aide who appeared to orchestrate traffic jams as an act of political revenge.
For a day at least, Christie - whose in-your-face style has become his political brand - was unusually contrite. During his two-hour news conference in Trenton, Christie said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by the episode, which he said he had not known about.
To Christie's critics, the notion that his staff would order up lane closures on the busy George Washington Bridge to get back at a New Jersey mayor who refused to endorse Christie during last year's elections seemed to match their caricature of him as a bully with a temper.
But by late Thursday, as Christie was visiting Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to apologize in person, Republican and Democratic strategists were predicting that if Christie runs for president as many expect, voters and potential donors largely would forget the bridge scandal by the time the 2016 campaign begins in earnest next year.
That could change, the strategists said, if the various inquiries into the incident by federal prosecutors, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and a U.S. Senate panel manage to keep the story alive.
The scandal could dent Christie's carefully cultivated image as a get-things-done leader who puts the people ahead of politics - an image enhanced by last year's easy re-election in heavily Democratic New Jersey.
But without proof that Christie lied or knew that an aide was behind the lane-closure plan, Republicans said it is unlikely to be a factor by the time voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina begin to weigh in on the presidential race in early 2016.
"How many more things are going to happen in the world between now and January 2016, when the (primary) voting starts? The idea that voters are going to remember a lane closure in New Jersey - I don't believe it," said Rich Galen, a Washington-based Republican strategist.
Some prominent Democrats agreed that so far, Christie did not appear to have suffered long-term political damage.
"Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day," David Axelrod, a former political adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Twitter.
In the short term, however, strategists said the scandal could give pause to some Republican donors who have begun evaluating the party's potential White House contenders, leading them to wonder what other surprises might come with a Christie candidacy.
A recent book on the 2012 campaign, "Double Down," by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilmann, said Christie was rejected as a potential vice presidential candidate by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney because Romney aides thought there were too many possible controversies in Christie's background.
If Christie becomes a national candidate, every aspect of his record in New Jersey will be under intense scrutiny by journalists and political foes from both parties, said Katon Dawson, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.
"Good luck with that, Governor Christie. This is just the beginning of 2016," Dawson said.
'THREE APOLOGIES THEN GO HOME'
Dawson agreed that as long as there is not much more to the bridge scandal, Christie should remain well-positioned to make a run for the White House.
"If it's a single incident that the governor handles properly, he'll move on. But if it's chapter one of 10 chapters, this won't be the last apology. You get about three apologies, and then you have to go home," Dawson said.
Some recent opinion polls have shown Christie leading other potential Republican contenders for 2016. A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll in November had him ahead of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, and others.
David Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Christie always has walked a fine political line in his home state because of his confrontational style with political foes.
"He's made his national image as a straight-talking leader who doesn't play petty politics, and this particular event looks like the worst kind of petty politics," Redlawsk said.
"It's one thing to be tough on your critics. It's another to be doing things to people who don't deserve it. That's what a bully does, and in this case the people of Fort Lee did not deserve this," he said.
Galen said Christie's image as a bully has been somewhat endearing to many voters.
"He is a bully, and he just got elected with 60 percent of the vote in a Democratic state," Galen said. "Given a choice of a bully or a wimp as commander-in-chief, most people would go for the bully."
But Steve Grubbs, a former Republican state chairman in Iowa, said any sign that Christie was directly involved in the bridge incident would make him "a tough sell" in Iowa, which will hold one of the first contests in the state-by-state nominating process for president in 2016.
"Iowa does not have a history of vindictive politics. There is sort of an expectation that our better angels will prevail when statesmanship is needed," Grubbs said.
If he seeks the Republican nomination for president, Christie's bigger problem could be with Republicans who are part of the Tea Party movement and other voters who do not believe he is conservative enough.
Such voters are a particularly powerful voice in the nominating process, and many are suspicious of Christie's record in New Jersey - including his recent approval of a bill that provides in-state college tuition discounts to the children of undocumented workers.
Some conservatives also remain unhappy with the famous hug and words of support that Christie gave Obama during the aftermath of the Superstorm Sandy in 2012, just before the presidential election.
"If Christie shows up in New Hampshire," home to another early nominating contest, "he's going to have his detractors, but it's going to be driven by ideology," said former New Hampshire state Republican chairman Fergus Cullen. "It's not going to be driven by (any controversy over) a bridge in New Jersey."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Walsh)