LAS VEGAS — As Chris Christie fights to recover from scandal, elite Republican business leaders may be close to dismissing him as a serious contender for president.
Soon after the New Jersey governor downplayed his administration's traffic scandal as "a footnote" in a prospective 2016 campaign, Republican donors at a hedge fund conference in Las Vegas this week shared a decidedly pessimistic view of Christie's presidential prospects. Even self-proclaimed Christie fans said his political image probably has suffered permanent damage, acknowledging they've been forced to look elsewhere for a business-friendly presidential contender.
State and federal investigators continue to probe an apparent political retribution plot within the Christie administration that caused massive traffic delays along the George Washington Bridge last fall. Christie has fired several senior aides and denied direct prior knowledge of the incident.
Thomas Norris, chief investment officer at Michigan-based NFI Advisors Inc., compared Christie's repeated denials to those of President Richard Nixon, who resigned after years of claiming no involvement in the Watergate scandal.
"Is it enough to tarnish his chances? It sure is," Norris, a Republican, said during a break at the annual Skybridge Alternatives conference. The event drew hundreds of financial industry executives, many of them prominent Republican donors, to Las Vegas this week.
Earlier in the week, Christie signaled his interest in a presidential bid in unusually strong terms while appearing at a Washington fiscal summit. Asked if he's thinking of running in 2016 and when he'll make a decision, Christie said, "Yes, and later."
By then, Christie said, the traffic controversy "will be a footnote." He told reporters, "There hasn't been one suggestion that I knew anything."
But the governor's challenge followed him to New York on Thursday before an appearance at the Sept. 11 museum dedication ceremony.
The initial program called for a performance of the Simon & Garfunkel song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," immediately after Christie was scheduled to speak. That sent social media aflutter given the New Jersey investigation often called "Bridgegate."
Just before the ceremony, a museum spokesman announced that the original performer was sick and another would instead perform the hymn "Amazing Grace."
Christie was considered a front-runner in the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination before the New Jersey scandal erupted. The GOP's tea party wing was reluctant to embrace him, but he was particularly popular among the less-ideological financial industry executives who pump tens of millions of dollars into presidential campaigns every four years.
Interviews with more than a dozen business executives this week revealed that many maintain positive feelings for the tough-talking governor, but most have lost confidence in his ability to win.
The bridge controversy is "an overwhelming issue he can't overcome," Rick Rodgers, vice president and director of the Innovest investment firm, said after praising Christie's work to rein in teachers unions. "He had a good opportunity, and boy, here's the thing that's going to derail him."
Lars Soderberg, chief marketing officer at Independence Capital Asset Partners, said he was interested in a prospective Christie presidential bid — before the scandal, at least.
"That bridge thing — it may be fatal," Soderberg said. "No one will forget."
There was no clear consensus about whom the hedge fund executives would support in Christie's place. They almost unanimously rejected tea party darlings such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas when asked, but they also raised concerns about one of the establishment favorites, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"I can't imagine a third Bush in the White House," Rodgers said.
Christie, meanwhile, is showing no signs of abandoning his national ambitions.
He has maintained an aggressive national travel schedule as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, recording strong fundraising totals through the first months of the year. He has also begun to speak more freely to reporters beyond New Jersey after months of relative silence.
Speaking shortly after President Barack Obama in New York on Thursday, Christie reflected upon the national unity and overwhelming goodwill that followed the 9/11 attack.
"Here in this museum, we are reminded to pause and remember how many came to help us," Christie said, "and that the true gift of fellowship and friendship can be born out of the night."