KEN THOMAS and STEVE PEOPLES
WASHINGTON (AP) — Moving cautiously to repair his image, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is maintaining a low profile this weekend as the nation's governors gather in Washington.
Republican officials have been eager to change the subject as Democrats link Christie's troubles to vulnerable GOP governors in a challenging election season.
The usually outspoken Christie is scheduled to attend just one public event over the three-day annual meeting. He avoided a media-sponsored forum on Friday, wasn't granting interviews, won't attend a White House dinner and was skipping a news conference hosted by the Republican Governors Association, an organization he heads.
Christie arrived at the National Governors Association meeting with his wife, Mary Pat, and a group of aides, declining to respond to reporters' questions as he entered the ballroom. Before the start of the meeting, Christie chatted with Gov. Steve Beshear, D-Ky., and agreed to a few quick photographs with attendees near the podium.
"I think he's getting a bum rap," said Lily Kersh of Arkansas, who took a "selfie" photo with Christie.
Asked by reporters afterward whether the bridge scandal came up in meetings with governors, Christie said: "No, just by you guys."
Christie is leaving Washington Sunday to celebrate his daughter's birthday and focus on an upcoming budget address, according to his office. Advisers privately acknowledge a larger effort to reduce media coverage of ongoing abuse-of-power investigations in New Jersey that threaten to derail his ambitious political future. When elected to his second term last fall, Christie was considered one of his party's strongest prospective presidential candidates.
"Governor Christie may be hiding under a bridge somewhere or stuck in traffic, but the fact that he's a liability for Republican governors remains readily apparent this weekend," said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
Scandal erupted in New Jersey six weeks ago when internal emails revealed that senior members of the Christie administration ordered traffic lanes closed near the George Washington Bridge, perhaps to punish a Democratic mayor. The closures created days of gridlock that ensnared commuters, schoolchildren and emergency responders.
Federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation, while state lawmakers are pursuing their own civil probe. Christie has denied personal involvement, but five people close to him have been fired or have resigned.
Republican governors seemed keen on avoiding questions about Christie's leadership of the organization responsible for electing GOP governors. Republicans face a challenging political map going into the November midterm contests. They are defending 22 of the 36 governor seats up for election, including six in states that President Barack Obama carried twice.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, told reporters that there was "great support" for Christie among fellow GOP governors. "I think for many of us who talked to Chris the last few months, we feel ultimately he's laid out what the facts are and acted on that and we support him both being governor and as RGA chair," Walker said.
Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who faces his first re-election this fall, said he appreciates Christie's support as chairman of the governors association but declined to say whether he wanted Christie to visit Michigan on his behalf.
"I have a good relationship with Governor Christie," Snyder said when asked whether he would campaign alongside Christie. "If he's probably coming it's probably in the context of fundraising."
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said that she and other governors are trying not to "get distracted by all this noise."
Next week Christie is scheduled to lead his second New Jersey town hall-style meeting in as many weeks. He is also set to maintain an aggressive national travel schedule in the coming months.
The Republican Governors Association already announced his plans to travel to Texas, Massachusetts, Georgia, Connecticut and Utah and the association's executive director, Phil Cox, said that's just the beginning.
"I know we've got 10 to 12 trips planned over the next two to three months," Cox said. "You're going to see Governor Christie and many of our governors out across the country campaigning for our candidates."
Of the New Jersey scandal, Cox said, "I don't see it as an issue."
Democrats are using Christie's struggles, along with the recent indictment of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, to undercut the message of Republican governors acting as change agents. Party officials also jumped on the disclosure in Wisconsin this week of tens of thousands of emails that appeared to mix official and campaign business while Walker was serving as county executive and running for governor in 2010, a campaign he won.
At the governor's meeting Saturday, Walker downplayed the documents as "old news," adding that while that investigation is closed, Christie's problems are "just beginning."
Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said, "Especially as other Republican candidates and governors bring Christie in to campaign for them, we're going to continue to talk about how he got things done in New Jersey."
Mitt Romney, the GOP's 2012 presidential nominee, is expected to attend a Christie fundraiser in Boston next week. The event, like all of Christie's national fundraising appearances so far, is expected to be private.
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