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Since November, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been busy toting up victories: crushing his Democratic opponent while cruising to re-election, ascending to the helm of the Republican Governors Association, and — while he has not announced he’s running for president — receiving from polls the mantle of being his party’s 2016 front-runner.

But the governor, who has defined himself by always going on the offensive, took his biggest hit this week with the disclosure of emails and texts linking his deputy chief of staff to the closures of highway-access lanes leading up to the George Washington Bridge last fall, a move that paralyzed traffic in Fort Lee, N.J.

Perhaps most damaging for Christie, the accusations against his office fuel the biggest criticism his opponents have long pushed, without (until now) much success: that he’s a thin-skinned bully, willing to push people around “Jersey-style.”

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“He’s always been a two-sided coin. On one side, you have a tough, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is politician that people say they want,” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “On the other side is the bully. Which side of the coin does this shine a light on? It’s obvious.”

Statehouse Democrats leading the inquiry into the traffic jams said the documents rule out any plausible motive for the orchestrated lane closures other than political retribution by the administration against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who refused to endorse the Republican governor in what ended up being a 22-point re-election win.

“I am who I am. But I am not a bully,” Christie said during a lengthy news conference Thursday in which he apologized, repeatedly, for the closures and the resulting traffic jams.

The governor fired a top aide, jettisoned his chief political adviser and took responsibility for his administration’s connections to the traffic tie-ups.

But he adamantly denied any personal “knowledge or involvement” in the lane closures, a pronouncement that satisfied some critics in the short term but creates political risk amid the ongoing investigation.

Democrats and Republicans said the governor’s 2016 presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts Thursday’s denials.

“Unless something new develops, I think he’ll survive,” said former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican whom Christie has described as a mentor. “But if there’s a pattern of these things, if other incidents emerge with similar characteristics, that’s going to be a real problem.”

David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama’s campaigns, said Christie handled the news conference “as well as he could.”

“Unless smoking gun turns up tying him to scheme, or others arise, he lives to fight another day,” Axelrod wrote on Twitter.

Christie said he was “blindsided” by the incident, an acknowledgment that could undercut his reputation as a take-charge manager.

Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature could spend months investigating the case, forcing Christie and his staff to defend themselves. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman is reviewing the case and the Port Authority’s inspector general is also investigating. In Washington, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has demanded answers about the debacle.

Political strategists suggested the episode offers future opponents a ready-made line of attack that strikes at the heart of the inclusive political brand Christie has worked to cultivate. The lane closures clogged one of the world’s busiest bridges for days, delaying children from getting to school and first responders from emergencies.

Christie seemed to acknowledge the potential damage, saying he values bipartisanship and compromise despite the political retribution his administration may have exacted against a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse him.

“This is the exception, it is not the rule of what’s happened over the last four years in this administration,” Christie said. “I’ve worked with elected officials on both sides of the aisle.”

The bridge affair also reinforces a negative stereotype from critics who say Christie’s no-holds-barred approach makes him nothing more than a bully in a state known for its tough politics. And it gives conservatives another reason to dislike Christie, whose Superstorm Sandy embrace of Obama during the waning days of the 2012 presidential election generated questions about the Republican’s loyalty.

For Christie, the scandal could disrupt an ambitious start to a second term that was designed to be a springboard to a national campaign.

Declaring victory on election night, Christie told supporters, “I know that if we can do this in Trenton, N.J., maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now — see how it’s done.”

Whether the traffic scandal will define Christie’s future is hard to tell. But it raises the question of whether he can become a breakthrough figure in the Republican Party at a time many Americans bemoan dysfunctional government or simply become part of the gridlock.

Cary Covington, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said that in that state, which hosts the first presidential contest with its caucuses, clean politics matters.

“Iowans care about this stuff,” Covington said.

As for any presidential aspirations, potential opponents are watching.

“I guarantee you that virtually every Republican running against him for president will have this in one or more TV ads. It’s irresistible,” Sabato said.

Material from The Philadelphia Inquirer is included in this report.

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