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First Thoughts: Christie's enemies - Democrats and Republicans - ready to pounce

The real danger for Christie: His enemies (Democrats and Republicans) are ready to pounce… Lindsey Graham: “He’s kind of a bully”… Listing the red lines that Christie established in his story… Another danger for Christie: The scandal makes him look like any other politician… A disappointing jobs report: Just 74,000 jobs created in December, but unemployment rate drops to 6.7%... Paul Ryan talks poverty with NBC’s Brian Williams… And why the GOP getting Gillespie to run in Virginia is important.

The New Jersey Governor embarked on a road trip Thursday, apologizing to citizens and officials after emails revealed an orchestrated traffic delay by members of his staff last September. Christie maintains that he had no idea of his staff's actions. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

*** Christie’s enemies -- Democrats and Republicans -- are ready to pounce: By firing one of his top aides, apologizing to the residents of Fort Lee, and answering reporters’ questions for nearly two hours yesterday (sometimes impressively, sometimes unevenly), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lived to survive another day -- and more. (Who knows, Christie might have the Bill Clinton gene where a political performance can rescue him.) But as he deals with the fallout from this George Washington Bridge scandal, Christie faces a serious problem that goes well beyond whether anyone contradicts the story and timeline he laid out on Thursday: He has enemies, both Democratic and Republican ones, who are sharpening their knives. On the Democratic side, state lawmakers are holding hearings and investigations on the issue (example: Christie aide David Wildstein pleading the 5th yesterday), and that won’t stop anytime soon. Just as Darrell Issa and House Republicans hounded the Obama administration last year with subpoenas, leaks, and numerous hearings, New Jersey Democrats have the ability to make life miserable for Christie in 2014. But it’s not only Democrats. Some Republicans -- potential 2016 rivals, conservatives upset by his embrace of President Obama in 2012, or any other enemies he’s made along the way – have the ability to score points with this scandal. "You're going to see conservatives returning the favor he gave them over the last year,” GOP strategist Rick Wilson told National Journal. “There's no love lost between Chris Christie and conservatives.”

*** Lindsey Graham: “He’s kind of a bully”: Speaking of Republicans saying critical things about Christie, don’t miss what Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told NBC’s Kasie Hunt. “It seems to me that this whole bridge thing reinforces a narrative that's troublesome about the guy, he's kind of a bully," Graham said. “If anybody in my office had done such a thing, they knew what their fate would be ‘cause I'm not that kind a guy. I just don't see how people that close to him could have felt comfortable enough to do this if they thought their boss wasn't of this mindset. Isn't that just common sense?" Bottom line: Christie is on an island right now. If he were president or his party’s presidential nominee, you’d see the entire GOP coming to his defense. But that isn’t the case here, at least not right now.

*** I hate these red lines… I know you want it: As far as Christie’s performance yesterday, a lot seemed to depend on your knowledge of the story. The more you knew, probably the less impressed you were (the traffic study, his distancing himself from Wildstein). But the less you knew, probably the more impressed you were. Christie, after all, is a skilled political performer, and if he survives this story, he’s only going to be stronger. And a big part of success in American politics is an ability to survive (just ask Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama). But as NBC’s Mike O’Brien writes, Christie better hope there are NO HOLES in his story, because the political damage would be significant -- if not fatal.  There is no margin for error; every little thing will be examined. Indeed,NBC’s Carrie Dann notes that Christie established several red lines yesterday. Among them:

-  “I was done with my workout yesterday morning and got a call from my communications director at about8:50, 8:55, informing me of this story that had just broken on the Bergen Record website. That was the first time I knew about this.” (That means, according to Christie’s story, he had no information about any plans to cause traffic problems in Fort Lee beforeWednesday morning. Then again, you could argue it depends on the meaning of “this”; is “this” the emails themselves or the story was going public?)

-  “Mayor Sokolich was never on my radar screen. He was never mentioned to me as somebody whose endorsement we were even pursuing… I don't have any recollection of at any time, anybody in the campaign ever asking me to meet with Mayor Sokolich or call him.” (That means, per Christie’s telling, there were no obvious ties between Christie’s campaign and the Fort Lee mayor.)

-  “It is true that I met David [Wildstein] in 1977 in high school. He's a year older than me. David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school… I have had no contact with David Wildstein in a long time, a long time, well before the election. You know, I could probably count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with David since he worked at the Port Authority. I did not interact with David.” (That means, according to Christie, that we won’t find ANY recent contact between Wildstein and the governor.)

*** Another danger for Christie: The scandal makes him look like any other politician: Here’s a final point on Christie. Even if he survives this -- and he very well might -- the story has damaged him in this way: He looks like an ordinary politician. One of Christie’s key political strengths is that he’s perceived to be different than the rest. He’s a straight-shooter; he’s disgusted that Washington isn’t working for the American people; what you see is what you get. But even if his story holds up – that a handful of key aides, without his knowledge – caused traffic jams for political payback, that shine wears off.

*** A disappointing December jobs report: The news from the AP: “U.S. employers added a scant 74,000 jobs in December, the fewest in three years. The disappointing gain ends 2013 on a weak note after recent economic reports had raised hopes for a strong finish. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, the lowest level since October 2008. But the drop occurred partly because more Americans stopped looking for jobs. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for work. But these numbers sharply differ from this week’s ADP report, which said that 238,000 private-sector jobs were created last month. So which survey is right?

*** Paul Ryan on poverty: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) told NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview as part of NBC’s In Plain Sight reporting project on poverty that LBJ’s “War on Poverty” has “failed.”It’s something the House Budget chairman said six months ago, too. And while Ryan has traveled the country after the election to impoverished areas trying to show Republicans are more compassionate to the plight of the poor, his effort -- so far -- seems more messaging than substantive policy shifts. The idea is: “Go there; go to places where people are hurting and try to sell them on conservative ideology, then they’ll realize how the left has distorted the right’s positions.” Ryan’s poverty message seemed to focus on what individuals could do in communities rather than what government can do to help. He’s promising to unveil more details soon on his poverty platform. But one thing to keep an eye on with Ryan, of all the potential 2016 candidates, no one (maybe with the exception of Marco Rubio) seems to be more interested in developing policy than Ryan. That is one way for him to stand out compared to the rest of the Washington-establishment wing of candidates.

*** Why the GOP getting Gillespie to run in Virginia is important: Lastly, Republicans have found a candidate to challenge Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) this year -- GOP strategist and lobbyist Ed Gillespie. Gillespie faces an uphill fight; after all, Warner is the most popular politician in Virginia. But don’t lose sight on the fact that Senate Republicans have now put NUMEROUS seats in play beyond the Alaska/Arkansas/Louisiana/Montana/North Carolina/South Dakota/West Virginia playing field. They have a strong candidate in Michigan; they might get Scott Brown to run in New Hampshire; and now they have Gillespie in Virginia, who at the least will make Warner and the Democrats have to spend money in Virginia this year. We’re not saying VA or NH or MI are suddenly toss-ups. But they aren’t run-aways anymore for the Dems. That’s more resources and more incumbents (toss in Colorado and Minnesota to boot) asking the DSCC for help. By comparison, the only two Republican seats Democrats have put in play are Georgia and Kentucky, and both are states Obama lost in 2008 and 2012. There are no Chris Coons’ or Joe Donnellys waiting in the wings to take advantage of Tea Party victories in Mississippi, South Carolina, Kansas, Tennessee or Texas. By the way, one more Virginia note: The 2012 winner in Virginia was a former DNC chair (Tim Kaine), and the 2013 winner was another former DNC chair (Terry McAuliffe). Can the former RNC Chair Gillespie have similar success in Virginia? Virginia is not just for lovers, but are they lovers of national party chairs, too?

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