NEW YORK (Reuters) - New Jersey voters do not blame Governor Chris Christie for an epic September traffic jam on one of the world's busiest bridges, but think the scandal will hurt his chances as a 2016 presidential contender, a poll released on Wednesday found.
The prominent U.S. Republican's repeated apologies for the four-day tie-up has softened his image with voters who recently reelected him to a second term, earning him one of the lowest "bully" scores recorded in a poll by Quinnipiac University.
Fully 50 percent of respondents polled believed Christie's statement he did not know that a top aide, who he has since fired, called for the closure of three lanes on the George Washington Bridge possibly as political payback to the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee.
Just 41 percent of the 1,207 voters polled January 10-13, after the release of e-mails tying the aide to the scandal dubbed "Bridgegate" by local media, did not believe Christie's assertions that he did not know his staff had been involved.
Some 54 percent of voters regarded the former federal prosecutor as more of a leader than a bully, with 40 percent labeling him a bully. Quinnipiac first asked that question in 2010.
The poll found 49 percent of those polled said the scandal could damage the rising star in the Republican Party in his expected 2016 run for the White House, with 38 percent saying the scandal will have no impact.
"Christie for President? This scandal hurts his chances, both Democrats and Republicans think," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The Quinnipiac poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
The findings differ from those found in a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday. That showed the bridge closure scandal had taken a toll on Christie's image, with 26 percent of those asked saying they were now less favorable toward him, compared with 3 percent, who said they were more favorable.
More respondents to the Reuters/Ipsos poll believed he had a hand in the closures, with 31 percent saying they thought he was aware his staff intentionally caused the traffic jam, compared with 28 percent who said they believed his statements that he was in the dark.
'TOLL BOOTHS OF GLORY'
Tabloid newspapers and late night talk show hosts feasted on the scandal, with Jimmy Fallon enlisting New Jersey-raised rock star Bruce Springsteen, who Christie has said he adores, to riff on the lane closures in a song called "We're stuck in Governor Chris Christie's Fort Lee, New Jersey traffic jam".
Sung to the tune of Springsteen's "Born to Run", it begins, "In the day we sweated out on the streets, stuck in traffic on the GWB".
Fallon sang: "They shut down the toll booths of glory, cause we didn't endorse Christie ... Whoa, baby this Bridgegate was just payback."
Springsteen joined in: "You got Wall Street masters stuck cheek-to-cheek with blue collared truckers and man, I really gotta take a leak. But I can't. I'm stuck in Governor Chris Christie's Fort Lee, New Jersey, traffic jam!"
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Sophie Hares)