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Embattled New Jersey Governor Christie finds friendly crowd at familiar forum

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie responds to a question during a town hall meeting in Sterling February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie responds to a question during a town hall meeting in Sterling February 26, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Edith Honan

STIRLING, New Jersey (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has endured months of political fire for a traffic scandal that has brought down some top aides, visited a conservative corner of his state on Wednesday for a town hall intended to show off his charisma.

In his second such meeting since the "Bridgegate" scandal broke, voters were warm to Christie, a Republican seen as a likely 2016 White House contender, saying they respected his leadership even after learning that aides ordered the closure of three lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge in an act of apparent political retribution.

"I love the governor and I really want to support him through these troubled times," said Dorothy Burger, who said she was active in local Republican politics in the suburb of Stirling, located about 30 miles west of New York City. "I think the Democrats want to damage him as a presidential candidate."

Christie has slid in polls of Republican voters since news of his aides' role in the scandal broke, going from leading a November CNN/Opinion Research poll with the support of almost one-in-four registered Republican voters to trailing former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee by four points in a similar poll released early this month.

Throughout his four years in office, Christie's political backers have made much of his town halls, which the governor uses to crack self-deprecating jokes, answer specific and often highly personal concerns directly, and occasionally engage in verbal sparring -- moments his office quickly uploads onto YouTube.

He aimed to put his everyman, trouble-shooter persona on display on Wednesday.

When a single mom complained about her treatment by a family court judge, Christie promised to have the state's top judge reach out to her directly.

A 10-year-old spoke out in favor of hand-written, rather than computerized, standardized tests, and the governor told her to expect a call from the state's schools chief.

"After he explains it to me, I'm going to make him call you and explain it to you," Christie told the girl.

ON THE DEFENSIVE

Christie has been on the defensive for the last two months, since emails released to the public showed some of his top aides openly talking about causing a massive traffic jam. The incident, which is being probed by federal prosecutors and a special legislative committee, has led to four people close to the governor losing their jobs.

Christie has vehemently denied advanced knowledge of the lane closures, which led to four days of gridlock on the bridge, which connects New Jersey to New York City.

The appearance came one day after the governor delivered his annual budget address to the Democrat-controlled state legislature and called for a second round of changes to the state's pension system for public workers.

The changes would build on a package of reforms passed in 2011, which Christie now says did not go far enough to stem the tide of rising costs for pension and health care benefits.

"My job is to be the adult on the room, to tell you the truth about what's going on," Christie told the mostly elderly crowd, many bussed in from local senior centers.

"In the end, you all know that a $52 billion problem is not going to fix itself," he said of the state's pension obligations.

(Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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