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The Chris Christie record: Out-of-state travel and controversies slow a once-meteoric rise

·Political correspondent
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Chris Christie told supporters that he is running for president in an email Tuesday morning before a public announcement in his hometown of Livingston, N.J.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s record in recent years has been defined as much by how much time he has spent out of state as what he’s done while he’s in the state.

The one-time GOP star, elected to the governor’s mansion in 2009, quickly found himself split between running the state and cultivating a burgeoning national profile. Building a national reputation required significant travel, beginning with his first flirtation with a White House bid in 2012. That year, he also was vetted for the vice presidential slot by Mitt Romney’s campaign and chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. By 2013, he was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association, traveling the country and fundraising for the party in 2014.

Now, as Christie campaigns for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, his frequent absences and a slew of scandals tied to his administration have helped to drag his approval rating down to an all-time low in June of just 30 percent in the Garden State. It’s a tough position from which to launch a national bid.

So far Christie has spent more than 40 percent of his second term, which began in 2014, outside of New Jersey. Much of that travel was for trips to help lay the groundwork for a national campaign, but there were also some jaunts that seemed harder to explain, such as to visits to watch Dallas Cowboys games , the NBA Finals or Premier League soccer. His cross-country work for the RGA raised more than $100 million for the group, but it also cost Garden State taxpayers approximately $1 million in traveling security detail costs. (That’s more than 10 times the amount that drew scrutiny in Maryland for the 2012 election travels of current 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who at the time was chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.)

Chief among Christie’s political liabilities, however, are a group of still-under-investigation scandals. The Fort Lee bridge lane closure scandal — in which Christie administration officials created gridlock on a major roadway between New Jersey and New York in an alleged political retribution attempt against Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing the governor in the previous election — led to the indictment of two top Christie administration officials and a guilty plea from one other . To date, “Bridgegate,” as local media have dubbed the scandal, has cost New Jersey taxpayers more than $11 million, according to WNYC.

Meanwhile, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office is currently investigating a Port Authority contract awarded to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whom Christie called a “friend” in order to accept private jet travel to a 2015 Cowboys game without running afoul of state ethics rules. Jones is part of an ownership group that in 2013 won the rights to operate an observation deck at One World Trade Center in conjunction with the Port Authority, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, is expected to generate $875 million in revenue for the joint New York-New Jersey government entity over 15 years.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talk during the 2015 National Football League playoffs in Green Bay, WI. (Photo: Mike McGinnis/Getty)

But the bigger-than-life personality that got a combative Christie in hot water at home is the same key attribute that gives him hope that he could be a contender in a national race. On a debate stage, for example, the self-described “straight-talking” Christie would have no qualms about being a bull in the china shop. And unlike some other fellow bulls (think: Donald Trump), he at least has some real-world political experience on which to base his attacks.

In early protocampaign stops, Christie has focused on his record, including five straight years of balanced budgets, which are required by New Jersey law. How he balanced them could give him a fighting point for the fiscal policy debate in a primary election, though the budgets have not been without controversy overall. One of Christie’s earliest and biggest moves was to cancel an $8.7 billion rail tunnel project connecting New Jersey and New York, allowing Christie to use approximately $3 billion in tolls and funds that would have gone to the tunnel project to pay off other bills. He also asked New Jersey teachers for the first time to contribute part of their salaries to their health care coverage as part of a larger plan to cut $1 billion from the state’s budget.

But according to a recent ProPublica-Washington Post report, Christie also “resorted to many of the financial maneuvers used by some of his predecessors: reducing state payments to pension plans, shifting money out of trust funds dedicated for specific purposes and borrowing to patch chronic budget gaps.”

In April, Moody’s Investors service downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating for the ninth time since Christie took office — a record for the state and an act that gave New Jersey the second-worst credit ranking in the nation, after Illinois. These sorts of negative financial outlooks make it more expensive for the state to borrow money.

In an interview with Yahoo News’ Matt Bai in April, Christie expressed confidence that he could have an impact on what he saw as a “wide-open” presidential race by promoting a sweeping entitlement reform plan that Christie says can save the U.S. Treasury $1 trillion over the next decade by raising the Medicare retirement age, expanding means testing in Medicare and Social Security, and converting Medicaid into a block grant program.

His record with New Jersey budgets is something he could cite to support that platform, though promises of entitlement cuts in general have been toxic in presidential elections, outside the GOP primary environment. Christie also can contrast himself to some of the more conservative stalwarts in the primary field by playing the pragmatist and pointing to times when he has done work for his state with the Obama administration.

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President Barack Obama is greeted by Chris Christie upon arrival in New Jersey to visit areas damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Christie took flak for welcoming President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, just days before the 2012 election. Less discussed has been Christie’s decision to accept the Medicaid expansion provision of the Affordable Care Act, which many Republican governors — including several in the 2016 field — have rejected.

Last week, Yahoo News reported that the next big Obamacare-related policy fight likely will be over the more than 20 states that have declined to take up the Medicaid expansion to insure their poorest residents. Christie is in a position in which he can instigate a fight with other Republicans who, collectively, have chosen to leave millions of constituents uninsured.

Christie can pick a bone with presumptive frontrunner and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime champion of Common Core educational testing standards, because just last month Christie called for the end of the program in New Jersey. He had previously supported the program, saying that GOP opposition to Common Core was rooted largely in animosity toward Obama, but he has since said that the implementation of the program has been a failure and that it needs to be rethought. The issue is one in which Christie has turned a previous point of overlap with Obama into a criticism of the president, and it also puts him on the same page as other GOP primary contenders not named Bush.

The question for Christie is whether voters will view these intraparty challenges favorably or whether he will just be one vote out of potentially 20 struggling to be heard over all the noise.

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