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Christie meets with voters for first time since bridge scandal

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during the 110th Town Hall Meeting in Middletown Township, New Jersey, February 20, 20
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie answers a question during the 110th Town Hall Meeting in Middletown Township, New Jersey, February 20, 20

By Dan Kelley

(Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Thursday held his first town hall meeting since becoming embroiled in a furor over bridge traffic lane closures, and voters asked him about almost anything but the scandal.

The Republican governor took questions on rebuilding efforts after Superstorm Sandy, reforming the state's family court system, and even beautifying its highway turning lanes known as jug handles.

Christie has experienced a drop in political support since it was revealed last month that some of his aides and allies apparently had a hand in orchestrating traffic jams at the busy George Washington Bridge in political retaliation aimed at a local Democratic mayor who had not endorsed the governor's re-election bid.

In the latest bit of bad news for Christie, a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday showed him down 13 points from November in a hypothetical matchup in Ohio with Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The George Washington Bridge is not in Ohio, but voters there seem very aware of its traffic problems - and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's traffic problems," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement accompanying the poll results.

The two had been essentially tied, Clinton with 42 percent and Christie with 41 percent, before the scandal broke in early January, Brown said.

"Today, she enjoys a comfortable double-digit lead and voters say Christie would not be a good president," he said.

Also on Thursday, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ordered two of Christie's former top staff to appear in court on March 11 and explain why she should not force them to comply with subpoenas issued by lawmakers investigating the lane closures.

Bridget Kelly, Christie's former deputy chief of staff, and Bill Stepien, his former campaign manager, have refused to comply with requests for documents, correspondence and other records since the subpoenas were issued last month.

At the town hall meeting in Middletown, New Jersey, Christie, who has a reputation for being blunt and at times impatient, seemed toned down.

He laid blame for delays in storm recovery funding on the federal government, saying: "We're stuck dealing with a federal system that's broken."

Christie himself has been accused of playing politics with Sandy aid. Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, has said his administration linked release of relief funds to approval of a local development project. Zimmer has since met with federal prosecutors looking into her claims.

Making no mention of that controversy, Christie noted at the meeting that he worked well with New Jersey's mayors and cited Matt Doherty of Belmar, on the Atlantic shore, as an example.

"We continue to work with all the mayors in a way that is incredibly cooperative and non-partisan," Christie said. "I'm a Republican. Doherty is a Democrat. That hasn't mattered one whiff.

"He's given me praise when he thinks I deserve it and given me criticism when he thinks I deserve it," he said.

One audience member suggested that Christie, known to be a Bruce Springsteen fan, burn the New Jersey rock star's CDs.

Springsteen recently appeared on television in a musical parody of the bridge scandal with late night talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

Christie responded that he was under no illusion that he and Springsteen were "simpatico" on the issues.

"I still live in hope that someday he'll wake up and say, ‘He's alright. We can be friends,'" Christie said. "I live in hope of that."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Gunna Dickson)

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