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By Ellen Wulfhorst
MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb 21 (Reuters) - Sipping his breakfast coffee in a cozy booth at Chez Vachon, a New Hampshire cafe favored by political junkies and a regular stop for aspirants on the campaign trail to the White House, Bill McEvoy debated the presidential future of Republican Chris Christie.
“If they can prove that he lied, then he’s out,” said McEvoy, 71, referring to the so-called Bridgegate scandal that has dogged Christie for weeks and raised questions about whether his administration orchestrated massive traffic jams as political payback.
Short of that, McEvoy said, “I think he can come out of it looking good.”
While Christie has seen support tumble in national polls since the controversy erupted, interviews with more than two dozen voters and party activists in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina - the initial proving grounds for presidential candidates - suggest he may yet be able to overcome the scandal.
What many said they want from Christie is time and attention, a display of hands-on, retail politicking ahead of the first caucus in Iowa and the first two primaries, in New Hampshire and in South Carolina.
In Iowa, A.J. Spiker, chairman of the state Republican Party, compared Christie to Mitt Romney, who was criticized for health-care reforms he helped pass as governor of Massachusetts.
Conservatives denounced “Romneycare” as a prototype for President Obama’s health-care policy, yet Romney won the Iowa caucus and the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
“People can do well here - if they come and they work the state and they talk to the people,” Spiker said. “I would say if Romney can overcome ‘Romneycare,’ if everything we know about the bridge scandal is public, then Christie should be able to overcome that.”
Besides, he added, the Iowa caucus is roughly two years away. “A lot happens in two years,” he said.
Christie has denied knowledge of the closure of three traffic lanes at the busy George Washington Bridge five months ago, which blew up into a scandal in January with the release of emails showing some of his aides and appointees may have orchestrated the snarl as political payback against a local mayor.
State and federal officials are investigating the incident.
While a contrite Christie held a nearly two-hour-long news conference soon after news of the scandal broke, claiming lack of knowledge about the plot and describing himself as embarrassed and humiliated by his staff, the imbroglio has dented his political standing.
Only 22 percent of voters in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey held a favorable view of Christie in late January, down from 33 percent in October.
A poll by the University of New Hampshire showed that a third of the state’s Republican primary voters were less likely to vote for Christie because of the scandal. But nearly all of the rest said it had little impact on their view.
An early proving ground in the presidential race, New Hampshire has accurately picked the Democratic and Republican winning nominees in three-quarters of the contests in the last 50 years.
Candidates campaigning in the state are exposed to grueling media attention and pointed questions from voters who demand face time during informal stops at local businesses such as Manchester’s bustling Chez Vachon.
That may benefit Christie, whose straight-forward, no-nonsense style has made him a national political force and will likely play well with New Hampshire voters, said Alan Glassman, chairman of the Belknap County Republican Committee
“There’s an astuteness on their part,” Glassman said of his fellow state Republicans. “They can tell whether somebody’s trying to pull the wool over their eyes.”
Another political aficionado at Chez Vachon was retired trucker Henry Fitts, who boasts of never missing a chance to vote. At 71, he has seen plenty from his seat at the landmark diner and says he thinks the tempest will teach Christie to be a better candidate and help tamp down his reputation as a bully.
“I think he’s going to come out cleaner than previously,” said Fitts. “He’s going to look a lot more sensitive when it’s all done.”
New Hampshire’s primary is often fueled by the state’s large bloc of independents, who can vote in either party’s primary.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, Christie, if he runs, would next move to South Carolina, the first contest of the primary season held in a southern state.
South Carolina’s scorecard is nearly perfect in choosing the Republican nominee. The winner there has gone on to claim the party nomination every time, with one exception, since the state’s primary began in 1980.
Candidates there face a formidable force of social and religious conservatives, which may prove to be a bigger challenge for Christie than overcoming a traffic scandal 700 miles to the north, local voters said.
“I do not like him as a candidate for president,” said Debbie Jones, 60, who lives on Isle of Palms and is active in the county Republican Party.
“It has nothing to do with Bridgegate, but everything to do with being another of the Republicans who don’t follow conservative beliefs and follow our Constitution,” she said. (Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Gunna Dickson)