The tough-talking governor has been accusing of bullying behavior before and critics say this is the latest example of a leader who uses retribution if he doesn’t get his way. Christie has always said voters appreciate his brashness, but opponents critique it’s not a style that will play outside the Garden State.

Democratic State Assemblyman John McKeon criticized the governor on a radio program in 2010 and was surprised to get a handwritten note from Christie explaining his displeasure, something he said could be seen as threatening and also highlighted in a New York Times story last month that mentioned several examples of behavior that could be viewed as bullying.

“You would hope the head of any organization sets the tone for the people around him,” McKeon told ABC News, referring to the Christie staffers implicated in the scandal. “The utilization of government resources for political retribution, that is sacrosanct and it is something that should never, ever be tolerated.”

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Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean Sr., a longtime associate of Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), tells The Washington Post that he hopes Christie will move swiftly to provide answers about e-mails and text messages suggesting Christie’s appointees retaliated against a Democratic mayor by creating a traffic jam.

“My advice to him: get it all out now,” Kean said, in a phone interview from his office in New Jersey. “He cannot let some committee, or the press, pull out these problems piece by piece. Let’s get the whole story on the table. If mistakes were made, admit it. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be like water torture.”

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“I think the worst is yet to come,” said New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell, who represents the town that was turned into a parking lot last year when some of the bridge’s lanes were abruptly closed for four days. “I don’t think we’ve seen all of it at all. I’m so happy that it’s unfolding slowly, like an onion opening up. You always get more facts that way — not to refer to the governor as an onion, but he’s been referred to as worse things.”…

Pascrell defended Kelly, saying he has worked with her before but stopped short of saying he thought Christie personally directed her to coordinate the shutdown.

“She did not just wake up one morning and decide let’s screw up the traffic in Fort Lee, we’ll teach that S.O.B,” Pascrell said. “That isn’t what happened.”

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“I do not believe for a minute that Chris Christie knew about this, and if he had known about it, he would have stopped it,” said Fred Malek, a top GOP fundraiser who works with Christie on the Republican Governors Association. “This is a bush-league tactic that is far below a man of his character and sophistication. It’s not an acceptable practice and he needs to deal with it decisively.”…

At risk is nothing less than Christie’s very political identity, which he had controlled so well to this point. A credible governor — or president — doesn’t act like a local political boss, and while Republicans have long lambasted President Barack Obama as a typical Chicago machine politician, they never really caught him acting like one. With stories of Christie’s team’s penchant for vengeance starting to pile up — and Democrats more motivated to highlight the tales than when they rolled over for him in 2013 — time is short for him to wrestle back control of his story.

“Democrats are besides themselves that they gave Christie a free pass to define himself in 2013 on very favorable terms,” one prominent Republican strategist told TIME. “They’re going to spend 2014 making up for lost time. It’s only going to get worse from here on out.”

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If he doesn’t fix this “bridge scandal,” are his presidential campaign plans doomed to failure? Probably. Here’s what the story tells us:

1) Christie surrounded himself with a crowd that couldn’t care less about the people of New Jersey at the same time as he was lauded for his “no partisanship here” response to Hurricane Sandy.

2) Christie, normally politically astute, may now be forever associated with traffic jams, something that everyone hates.

3) Christie’s penchant for tough politicking (as he might spin it) plays horribly on the national stage.

4) Christie’s entire self-created public image, that of a fearless, straight-talking, get-it-done guy with no tolerance for politics or bullshit, has been entirely subverted.

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in recent years, Christie had worked hard to soften his image, to telegraph that his bluntness and outspokenness was being offered on behalf of voters, and to reassure everyone that he wasn’t a big, mean jerk. He was greatly aided in this project by his response to Hurricane Sandy, his highly public empathy for its victims, and his praise of President Obama in the closing days of the 2012 campaign…

What’s so damaging about these revelations to Christie is that they expose him and his brain trust as breathtakingly venal and vindictive. Respectable politicians don’t block ambulances to retaliate at political opponents (in the parlance of right-wing talk-radio hosts, that’s called “bare-knuckle Chicago politics” and is only practiced by Democrats). The messages also shatter Christie’s carefully constructed image as a “nice” jerk fighting for the little guy. They show that he is, in fact, an entirely different kind of jerk, and that the little guy can go to hell.

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Nobody likes a tyrant. Especially Republican primary voters. Especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s IRS scandal and its selective enforcement of Obamacare. Most Americans still believe in the quaint notion that we are all equal under the law, and that ours is a country of laws, not men. Republican primary voters may expect this kind of abuse of power from Democrats, but they won’t tolerate it within their own ranks…

A major part of Christie’s appeal among Republicans is his willingness to stick it to certain liberal special interest groups like public employees’ unions. Conservatives take comfort in knowing that one of their guys knows how to throw a punch. But nobody likes it when their own side starts getting beat up. Christie’s team didn’t just target a potential political opponent for revenge, they targeted his own voters. This incident could very well suggest to a lot of GOP primary voters that Christie’s brashness might have a big downside…

There’s a certain amount of rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth backbiting that’s expected from the kind of people who choose to spend their lives trying to accumulate as much power as possible. As a result, backroom maneuvering to remove some political privileges enjoyed by one’s opponent probably wouldn’t draw a second glance. But that’s not what Christie’s top aides did. They deliberately chose to target innocent civilians: moms and dads trying to get to work on time, school bus drivers trying to get children to school, first responders trying to take ill people to the hospital.

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This is a political problem for Christie, but more importantly, it’s a leadership test. Since the governor arrived on the national stage, he has given various ad hoc seminars on leadership and the qualities required for greatness. He talks a great deal about the topic and offers himself as an expert. Before he became partners with Barack Obama in responding to Hurricane Sandy, he gave a very astringent critique of the president’s shortcomings. Recently Christie advised the president to apologize for his promise that if people wanted to keep their insurance they would be allowed to. “When you make a mistake, you should own up to it and apologize for it,” he said…

As a political matter, if Christie handles the fallout with skill, you could see voters finding their way to a rationalization. Sure, he is a little messy, but that’s why he gets results! The truth of leadership is that you want a president who can be a bit of a bully. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says in his new memoir, President Obama and President Bush both had problems with Congress because neither was liked or feared. But that obviously only goes so far. We also don’t want presidents who abuse their power. The Fort Lee emails are a classic case of that. Christie was already a lock to win his 2013 re-election race and therefore didn’t really need the mayoral endorsement. If a top aide to the governor can waste public money in an act of petty vindictiveness, imagine what might happen with real power—power of the kind we have all been debating in the wake of disclosures about the NSA’s ability to monitor American citizens. On the other hand, if Christie hires staffers who were dumb enough to say this kind of thing on email, perhaps general competence is the bigger worry.

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In reality, I’ve never known a governor without a long list of local opponents, enemies and plain chuckleheads who constantly drive him or her batty. Most governors spend a lot of time tussling with their hometown versions of Seinfeld’s accursed Newman, and dreaming of fixing said irritant’s political wagon once and for all.

I’ve also never known a governor with a political staff that did not take immense joy in the political pain and suffering of said opponents. In the rough-and-tumble personality-driven cauldron of New Jersey politics, this sort of battling is particularly ordinary. While in this case the wagon-fixers may have gone overboard, I doubt many people will be that shocked, shocked that hardball is alive and well in New Jersey.

My prediction? The whole thing will blow over. Sure, the media will howl for a week and the mayor of Fort Lee will spend the next two years darkly plotting ways to poison Christie’s good name in New Hampshire.

But Christie has already blasted the main chortling staffer in question. The circus will move on.

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