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Chris Christie's story had better add up

The political fate of the US presidential hopeful rests less on how much ridicule he attracts than on whether he can see off the lawyers

When it comes to life imitating art, and the confirmation of clichés, the present glorious scandal that threatens the presidential ambitions of New Jersey's Republican governor Chris Christie takes some beating.

As everyone on the planet is probably now aware, aides of the governor ordered the closure in September of two access lanes on to the George Washington Bridge that links New Jersey with Manhattan. The move caused misery for thousands of drivers and four days of gridlock in the township on the New Jersey side, all apparently in retaliation for the refusal of its mayor to endorse Christie's bid for re-election last year.

"Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee," ran the incriminating email from the governor's deputy chief of staff, a line guaranteed immortality in America's political lexicon. You couldn't make it up – except that dozens of lines like it have long been made up, in that paean to New Jersey that is The Sopranos television series. Bridges across the Hudson river feature in the opening sequence for each episode. In one of them, Tony Soprano has one of his rubbish trucks dump its load in front of some business whose owner isn't doing as the fictional mob boss wants. He might have called it a "garbage disposal study," like the "traffic management study" advanced as pretext for the real-life bridge closure. In the current scandal, the governor's aide reportedly was issuing instructions about the plan even as she was attending a wake. It might have been Tony ordering a hit as he pays his last respects at a family funeral.

In other ways too, the protagonists resemble each other. Chris Christie and Tony Soprano are both big fat men with an in-your-face style, a reputation for bullying, and a streak of insecurity. The similarities haven't been lost on the governor's peers either. According to Double Down, the best-selling account of the 2012 presidential election, Christie told the campaign of former Republican nominee Mitt Romney that it needed his permission to raise money in New Jersey. Romney, say the authors, found Christie's position "galling, like something out of The Sopranos."

The big question now of course is where does this leave Christie's chances of winning the White House. The answer is, it's much too early to say. Yes, he was universally expected to run. With his carefully nurtured brand of no-nonsense, non-ideological pragmatism he was moreover arguably the early frontrunner, a rare Republican able to appeal to Democrats. But he was no certainty for the party's nomination, let alone the Presidency.

Even before this scandal, Christie had enemies galore; from Democrats revelling in the discomfort of a dangerous opponent, to Republicans for whom bipartisanship is a dirty word, and who couldn't abide the sight of Christie and the loathed Barack Obama arm-in-arm as they confronted the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Some have described the deed as a betrayal that cost Romney victory, and cleared Christie's path for a long-plotted run four years hence.

A comparative moderate like Christie was always going to have problems in the primaries, especially in a Republican field likely to be much stronger than the laughably weak one from which Romney emerged as the least bad option two years ago. And with or without "Bridgegate", Christie's pugnacious, take-no-prisoners style of politics was never going to be an easy sell in the heartlands, far from the east coast, in the general election.

And now this scandal that re-inforces a negative stereotype, a politician's nightmare. Yet anyone with half a memory will know it's far too early to write Christie off. This scandal has broken two years before the first primary votes are cast in 2016. Back in 1992, Bill Clinton was hit with not one, but two scandals in the month before New Hampshire voters went to the polls. One involved tapes of a steamy liaison with erstwhile night-club singer Gennifer Flowers, the other a letter suggesting Clinton tried to wriggle out of the Vietnam draft. Both played to the established negative image of Clinton, the slippery customer with a serious zipper problem. Yet the self-styled "come-back kid" came back to win it all.

The difference now is that the law is involved. Back then Clinton faced obloquy and ridicule – but he didn't face, as Christie does now, a potential class-action lawsuit from people who claim to have lost money because they were delayed by the lane closures, or a report from a state legislature controlled by the other party or, most menacing of all, an investigation by the US attorney for New Jersey – by sweet stroke of irony, the very job Christie held before being elected governor.

No one therefore knows better than Christie the ruthless modus operandi of the federal prosecutor, the offer of plea bargains to lesser fry, if they spill the beans on the big guys. The potential offence in this case is abuse of political office. If one of Christie's underlings is indicted and provides testimony that incriminates the governor, then the game is probably up.

So Christie's protestations at Thursday's press conference that he had been "blind-sided" and had no idea of what his aides were up to, had better be correct. Making matters more awkward is his long-established reputation as a hands-on chief executive who ran a tight ship. "What did the President know, and when did he know it?" was the question that encapsulated Watergate. Its answer will determine the New Jersey governor's fate.

But Christie's position is at least as well summed up by one of Tony Soprano's ruminations on the nature of power. "All due respect, you got no fuckin' idea what it's like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fuckin' thing. It's too much to deal with almost. And in the end you're completely alone with it all." This wonderful scandal is about a bridge closure and a monster traffic jam, petty vendettas and score settling, and the limits of political loyalty. Above all though it's about Number One. About Chris Christie.