Does Christie still have a shot at the nomination?

Hell yes, says RCP elections analyst Sean Trende, dunking in the CW’s face. As much of a shot as anyone else, in fact. I’m skeptical, but this is a smart point about that “internal review” that cleared Christie of any involvement in Bridgegate:

What this scandal has done is remove the more or less bipartisan support for Christie that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But that’s mostly inevitable. We saw this happen to John McCain in 2008 once he became the face of the GOP, and we’re seeing it happen to Hillary Clinton today.

The one danger to Christie is that some smoking gun will emerge implicating him in the scandal. This is where the much-disparaged review of the case by the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher actually has some relevance. I think many analysts missed the point. This wasn’t a review to convince the public of Christie’s innocence — they are far too tuned out and distrustful of lawyers to buy into it.

What this was about was the “invisible primary” going on among donors, politicians and party apparatchiks. This primary exists to line up sufficient endorsements and fundraising to compete in the real primary. What the report is saying to these donors — all of whom know the firm — is “We’re a top-tier law firm without a strong dog in this fight, and a lot to lose in terms of our reputation. Guys, there isn’t a smoking gun.”

Yeah, Christie’s in survival mode right now with the donor class murmuring about Jeb. If they swing behind Bush, his candidacy is DOA; he’s not going to win the GOP nomination with only tri-state area financiers behind him. The Bridgegate internal review might have convinced the establishment to hold off on Jeb for awhile in hopes that Christie might fully recover from the scandal. Or, it might not have: The obvious counterpoint here is that the review was released a month ago and yet the Bush boomlet has been in full swing ever since. It sure feels lately like Republic millionaires are ready to abandon Christie for Bush 3.0 and are simply waiting for Bush to say the word. The only question is whether Jeb will run.

So no, I don’t think Christie has as good a shot as anyone. What Bridgegate did to him, I think, is moved him from presumptive establishment favorite to their second or maybe even third (behind Rubio) choice. He’s gone from being a first-place team on the verge of clinching home field throughout the playoffs to a team on the wild-card bubble that needs help to make the playoffs at all. But — yeah, there’s a still path for him potentially, if everything breaks right. First, Jeb has to pass on running. It’s hard for me to believe at this point that Christie could beat him in an establishment cage match, even though, rationally, Bridgegate would be much less of a liability in the general election than the Bush legacy would be. Christie’s best/only hope against Jeb would be to run hard in Iowa and New Hampshire and hope that centrist Republican voters revolt against the Bush brand and vote for him instead. Even that might be a Pyrrhic victory, though, since if the centrist vote splits between Bush and Christie, it probably means a more right-wing candidate like Rand Paul wins. Maybe Christie’s willing to tolerate that in the first few primaries just to get Bush out of the race. Once he’s gone, then Christie can consolidate centrists in South Carolina, Michigan, and Florida behind a “stop Paul/Cruz/whoever” message.

If Jeb doesn’t run, then Christie’s back more or less to where he was last year, as the man to beat in the RINO mini-primary. The difference, per Trende, is that he’ll have lost his biggest credential, his alleged electability advantage in attracting hordes of independents and Democrats (especially Latino independents and Democrats) to the party. Christie’s lost support across the aisle over Bridgegate; that was inevitable, notes Trende, just as it was inevitable for centrist-y candidates like McCain and Hillary to lose their crossover appeal too. Right, but for Christie, I think electability was supposed to be his magic bullet against all other criticisms, his get-out-of-jail-free card against all ideological heresies. He’s a Republican who won reelection by a landslide in a deep blue state. That was his big selling point as a potential nominee but now it’s gone, since no one thinks he would have won big last November had Bridgegate been an issue at the time. And yet, given all the arrows fired at Rand Paul lately, it’s easy to imagine Christie winning the nomination anyway if he ends up head to head with Rand and shifts to an “anyone but Paul” pitch. The donor class will spend big bucks making sure casual Republican voters are terrified of Paul as nominee. Christie could, certainly, prevail in that match-up. But the point, again, is that he’d have to run an essentially negative campaign to do it. A year ago, he was all set to run as “Chris Christie, breath of fresh air.” Now, if he runs, it’ll be first as an “anyone but Bush” alternative and then as an “anyone but Paul” one. It could work. But it’s going to get nasty.