There has been much happy talk among Republicans hoping for -- no, make that desperate for -- a moderate nominee to take on Hillary Clinton in 2016 since federal investigators have been unable to link New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Bridgegate, the public-safety mess resulting from the closing of several lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee in retaliation for the mayor of that fair burg not backing the governor in his re-election bid. The feds say their probe is "very much ongoing," but barring a key aide who might flip and provide the smoking gun prosecutors have lacked, Christie is likely to skate.
But the jubilation is misplaced because even with the obstacle of a criminal indictment removed and his well-known penchant for bullying and political revenge-seeking like Bridgegate put aside, Christie arguably has an even bigger problem: He has trashed New Jersey's economy, in large part because of cooking the books and a co-mingling of official businesses and GOP favoritism extraordinary even in a state where the official motto might as well be "Pay to Play."
Not only can Christie not point to economic success back home as did then-Texas Governor George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000, but his opponents in the grueling GOP primary season and presidential election can note that New Jersey's credit rating has been downgraded eight times on Christie's watch -- more than under any governor in the state's history.
In the eighth downgrading earlier this month, Standard & Poors belabored the obvious in stating that "New Jersey continues to struggle with structural imbalance . . . New Jersey will face increased long-term pressures in managing its long-term liabilities, and that the revenue and expenditure misalignment will grow based on reduced funding of the state's unfunded actuarial accrued liability."
Translation: Borrowers will impose even higher interest rates on a state under the budgetary gun when they lend it money to finance schools, which already are underfunded, and fix roads and bridges, which are a mess.
It gets worse: Since Christie took office in January 2010, private-sector job creation in New Jersey has increased by only 3.8 percent -- tied for second worst in the nation with the basket case known as Mississippi.
The New Jersey job growth rate is far more anemic than in Indiana (led by potential GOP presidential contender Mike Pence), Louisiana (Bobby Jindal), Texas (Rick Perry), Wisconsin (Scott Walker), and Ohio (John Kasich), and all five of those states have unemployment rates lower than the Garden State's 6.6 percent, which is half a percent higher than the national average.
My blogger friend Will Bunch nails it when he calls what Christie has done over the last five years a political Ponzi scheme in which money, tax breaks and other perks have been steered to his Republican cronies and other friends, all at the expense of New Jersey's suffering middle class and Mississippi-caliber poor.
* Christie ripped off hundreds of millions of dollars originally designated for a badly-need commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River to Manhattan to pay for the state's collapsing infrastructure, primarily the decrepit Pulaski Skyway, the main connector to the Holland Tunnel, which is on the verge of literally collapsing.
* The city of Hoboken was denied Superstorm Sandy relief money because its mayor would not role over when Christie tried to ram an immense condominium and business park development down her throat that was backed by influential Republicans.
* He paid for a Sandy-related tourism campaign with federal dough while doling out the bulk of Sandy funds allocated to the state to friends and supporters. The neediest storm victims got little or nothing.
* He named a close ally to head the dysfunctional Port Authority with no experience, but the contract did enrich his law firm.
Christie has a steep enough mountain to climb in seeking the nomination because he is not deemed conservative enough by the purists who have hijacked the Republican Party (among his cardinal sins was appointing a judge who happened to be Muslim), so his dismal, corruption-studded performance in managing New Jersey is a huge liability.
As GOP strategist Keith Appell said, "The economy is always the biggest issue . . . because the first question people ask is, 'What can you do for me? And this goes directly to their wallet or purse."
Which, blogger Dick Polman notes, is a lot more important than whether they've ever crossed the George Washington Bridge.
ABC News photograph