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Early 2016 states still high on Christie -- for now

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie still has his backers in early primary states, despite the bridge scandal.

The Republican establishment in early presidential nominating states is standing by Chris Christie -- so far.

Many of those closest to the action allow that the New Jersey governor could end up disqualified as a potential 2016 presidential candidate if it turns out that he wasn't telling the truth about the politically motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge during his marathon press conference on Thursday. Christie said he wasn't aware of or involved with a top staffer's plan to snarl traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., and announced he was firing two top aides. 

Yet interviews with numerous early-state operatives, establishment figures and party chairs show that even though there's skittishness in private, there's readiness to publicly rally behind Christie. His handling of the crisis so far, they say, could wear well over the next two years, eventually casting him as a decisive leader willing to take responsibility and fire top aides for their mistakes.

What do Republicans outside of New Jersey, especially in early primary and caucus states, have to say about this "bridgegate" story? NBC's Kasie Hunt talks about whether it could impact Gov. Chris Christie's reputation as a "reformer."

"At the end of the day, he's going to be just fine," said David Kochel, who led 2012 nominee Mitt Romney's efforts in Iowa.

"He showed leadership. He held people accountable," said Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

"It's refreshing to see a leader step up and take responsibility," said Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina GOP.

The across-the-board defense reflects a combination of a fractured Republican Party's hopes and fears for the looming 2016 presidential nomination fight that will kick off two years from now in Iowa. Each early state is defensive of its position in the process and wants every candidate to compete aggressively there. It's still early, and it's clear influential players are wary of crossing someone who is still viewed as a frontrunner, a more-than-plausible nominee and a potential president. 

And most of all, it's reflective of a GOP still bruised by a drawn-out 2012 nomination process that was defined by warring factions, forced its candidates to stake out right-wing positions to woo conservative activists and eventually produced a weak nominee who lost decisively to Democratic President Barack Obama in the general election.

Christie's enemies - Democrats and Republicans - ready to pounce

The GOP establishment in early presidential nominating states is standing by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as he battles "Bridgegate." But there are concerns about how it could impact Christie -- and the party overall -- in 2016. NBC's Kasie Hunt reports.

"The thing I think unites our party across the spectrum is to defeat Hillary Clinton. And everyone knows that's going to be a very difficult task," said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based operative who served as Texas Gov. Rick Perry's top strategist during his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Christie hasn't spent too much time in early primary states yet. But he made a number of visits on Romney's behalf in 2012, and it's clear he's interested -- he made sure to send family Christmas cards to Republicans in Iowa, for example. Early polls have put him atop the potential GOP field, and his success winning over Hispanic, independent and even Democratic voters in New Jersey have cast him as someone with the potential clout and widespread appeal to take on a Democrat like Clinton.

To be sure, it's clear that there's plenty of private criticism and hand-wringing among early-state Republicans about the implications the scandal could have for Christie in the 2016 nominating process. Some acknowledge the episode could exacerbate his reputation as a bully, an image that might be damaging in always-nice Iowa or in the genteel South.

"South Carolinians like people who are strong leaders, but they also like people who are courteous and polite," said David Wilkins, a GOP fundraiser and former ambassador under President George W. Bush who supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2012 presidential campaign.

There's also frustration over the fact that the scandal could incite a new round of the still-raging war between conservative activists and the party establishment. While the GOP has a history of falling in line behind the establishment's preferred presidential nominee, the recent discontent of the GOP base battered Romney during the last election and left party elders wondering how to change the process to protect future nominees. 

That's where this scandal could damage Christie in early states, several GOP sources said privately. Potential GOP candidates are legion, and include Sens. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; former presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Rick Perry; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan; and others. Conservative critics are already skeptical of Christie's positions on social issues and embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy in the final days of the 2012 general election. 

Democrat on bridge probe: Impeachment risk for Christie

Right-wing figures have been quick to add the scandal to their list of grievances against Christie. Iowa conservative activist Steve Deace, who's championed Cruz as a potential 2016 contender, slammed Christie and the GOP establishment on his Friday podcast.

"The Republicans would like to replace [President Obama] with somebody who shuts down the busiest bridge on planet Earth -- endangering how many lives? -- simply to grind a political axe," Deace fumed.

And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul -- who operatives in all three states said is by far the most active possible presidential candidate at this stage -- took a swipe at Christie.

"I don't know who emailed who and who works for whom. I have been in traffic before though and I know how angry I am when I'm in traffic and I've always wondered, 'who did this to me?'," Paul said Thursday.

Still, the criticism isn't universal. Steve King, a Western Iowa congressman with a reputation as a conservative firebrand, held back.

"I think that [Christie] manned up to it," said King, who carefully guards his own role in the Iowa caucus process and goes out of his way to court presidential hopefuls. "And now the investigation is coming along, it should be a vehicle that can scrub any questions clean and certify the statements he made."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who was elected in 2010 with a wave of Tea Party support, has also defended Christie, writing in a Facebook post that Christie "did the right thing in taking responsibility in a tough situation.

Haley, of course, is relying on Christie's fundraising support as she faces reelection this year. Several Republicans with establishment ties said that as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie's next big political test is getting GOP gubernatorial candidates elected. 

"What Republicans are looking to him for is to be a strong, successful RGA chairman. And they have high expectations for him," said Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor and RGA chairman. "And I expect to see him directing his political energy and focus to running the RGA, not to running for president."