CHICAGO — Landslide re-election behind him and a possible presidential bid ahead, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was forced Tuesday to talk instead about the bridge-closing scandal that has haunted his debut as a national political leader and sparked talk about whether he can withstand the scrutiny.
Asked about the flap, Christie told a crowd of influential Chicago-area business executives that he found the matter disappointing but not a distraction from his agenda.
"While the last six weeks have not been the most enjoyable of my life, the fact is we have to do our work," Christie told about 1,600 people at the Economic Club of Chicago.
It was the only question about the scandal posed to Christie during his first major public appearance since the January press conference in which he acknowledged that his administration had ordered lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge closed in September. Ahead of the event the Republican Governors Association, of which Christie is the elected president, touted his fundraising prowess for other GOP candidates.
Emails from a top political adviser and between a top Christie aide and a Port Authority official he appointed cast the traffic-snarling lane closures as retaliation for a local mayor's decision not to endorse Christie's re-election. Christie fired the aide and his political adviser but has denied authorizing or even knowing about the scheme until the emails became public last month.
"If there's more action that needs to be taken, I'll take it," Christie said in Chicago. "But it won't curtail for the long term a second-term agenda."
The hourlong question-and-answer session at a downtown hotel ballroom was supposed to be about Christie the national political figure and possible 2016 presidential contender. But the bridge closure lingered, and showed no signs of abating.
As Christie spoke, about a dozen New Jersey residents returned to the scene of a notorious traffic jam, urging people to sign a petition demanding Christie's resignation.
"This is a total abuse of power, and Christie and the rest of his crew need to understand that you cannot affect the lives of everyday New Jersey residents," said Fort Lee resident Valerie Howard Fadul. She said she was stuck in gridlocked traffic for more than five hours trying to get home from a Manhattan doctor's appointment as her pain medication wore off from an injection in her eye.
"It's not fair," Fadul said of Christie. "We're the ones who put you in office, and you need to resign."
In Chicago, Christie was spending most of his time in private meetings with GOP donors and expected to raise $1 million for GOP gubernatorial candidates during the one-day visit.
According to the RGA, Christie has helped raise $15 million for the GOP campaign group since taking the helm, including $6 million in January. The total is three times the amount the group had raised at the same point before the 2010 midterms.
There are elections for governor in 36 states this year, including 22 Republicans seeking re-election.
Even so, some national Republican rainmakers have said questions about Christie's involvement in the matter have given potential donors second thoughts.
Democratic former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland was dispatched by the Democratic National Committee to the venue, to stoke those doubts.
"He needs to explain how such a culture could be created among his closest advisers that they would feel comfortable closing the busiest bridge in the world," Strickland told The Associated Press.
But donors were not shying away on the Chicago trip.
Former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady said Christie was impressive at a morning fundraiser and did not bring up the bridge incident. Nor was he asked about it, Brady said.
Christie did talk about his national rise but cautioned the group of roughly 25 to keep focused on this year's elections.
"He brought it up himself, which is smart," Brady said. "He said, 'I'm flattered that my name is mentioned, but we need to focus on 2014.'"
Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., and Samantha Henry in Fort Lee, N.J., contributed to this report.