FORT LEE, N.J. – On a bright and warm Tuesday morning, the upper level of the George Washington Bridge was visible from inside the Plaza Diner in this northern New Jersey borough -- a place that has become nationally synonymous with political scandal.
It was almost two years ago, on the eastbound lanes leading to the toll plaza, where the sudden appearance of bright orange traffic cones may have heralded the unexpected demise of the once high-flying hopes of a governor who’d been positioned to become his party’s 2016 standard-bearer.
As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie prepared on Tuesday to announce his intention to seek the Republican presidential nomination, some of the people at the Plaza Diner -- an upscale version of the traditional greasy spoon, with a menu that features sushi as well as corned beef hash -- were reflecting on his odds.
As a server at the diner, Christine Daly is a bit of an anomaly, in that she's one of the few people in Fort Lee who benefited personally during those memorable four days in September 2013.
That was when aides to Christie ordered the closing of lanes leading to the world’s busiest bridge, for the apparent purpose of seeking political retribution against a Democratic mayor who refused to endorse Christie's re-election. An epic traffic jam resulted, and at the Plaza Diner, the hungry masses poured in.
“We got a lot of business,” Daly remembered. “One person said they were stuck for two hours and just gave up and decided to come in, and they enjoyed pancakes instead.”
With the flat-screen TVs behind the granite bar turned to CNN and Christie about to take the stage at his former high school in Livingston, New Jersey, a 40-minute drive down the road, Daly offered an additional thought.
“Ask him if he can close [the bridge] again, because Christine needs to pay her rent,” she said with a laugh.
But Daly made it clear that she wasn’t impressed with the governor, who on Tuesday became the 14th major entrant into the crowded GOP field.
“I picture Chris Christie more as someone who’d be in an episode of 'The Sopranos' than someone who’d run for president,” she said.
There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents someone from running for president while only 30 percent of voters in their home state approve of their job performance. But suffice it to say that to really “tell it like it is” would be to acknowledge that Christie has, by and large, become the butt of a running joke in the state that twice elected him.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at this Fort Lee eatery on Tuesday, where the goateed manager on duty -- a striking figure in his yellow button-down shirt, gold bracelet and gold cross necklace adorning his exposed chest -- intermittently glanced up at the TV as the governor spoke.
The man, known as "George the Greek" or "G the G" to others at the diner, offered a succinct response when asked for his opinion about Christie: “Asshole.”
After adding upon further reflection that it would be amusing to watch Christie and fellow GOP candidate Donald Trump “go at it” in the debates, G the G made a prediction about the governor.
“He’ll be one of the first ones to jump out [of the race],” said G the G. “I just think people will see right through him. When everyone starts realizing how bad New Jersey is, and even Republicans here don’t want him, how’s the rest of the country going to feel about him?”
From his seat at the bar, Bill, a salesman who was in town for business from Portsmouth, New Hampshire -- the first-in-the-nation primary state where Christie intends to stake his claim to take up unofficial residence in the coming months -- offered his own assessment of the candidate's strengths.
“I bet he could do a big fat cannonball,” said Bill, who declined to give his last name.
What might end up being Christie's biggest hurdle, as he tries to take his act out of New Jersey and onto the national stage, is exactly the sort of sentiment expressed in this diner Tuesday. When asked how they thought Christie will fare in his White House bid, several of the employees and patrons at the Plaza Diner alluded to New Jersey’s stubborn unemployment rate and sorry fiscal state as additional reasons why the governor could be in for a mighty struggle.
But it was Bridgegate -- and the ensuing questions that the scandal raised about Christie’s leadership style and temperament -- that remained the primary point of criticism, even for those who don’t live here.
“I think with that bridge, he knew exactly what he’s doing,” said Lou Defillipis, who was in town from Queens to meet with an insurance agent.
“I think he’s loud,” said Defillipis' wife, Gloria.
The views on Christie weren’t universally negative. A server named Viviana, who also declined to give her last name, had some faint praise for the governor.
“He’s better than that other clown,” she said.
You mean Trump?
Though there were a variety of opinions on what might be Christie's biggest liability as a candidate, everyone who spoke with The Huffington Post here on this particular day more or less agreed on one point: Christie’s hopes of becoming the nation’s 45th president seem about as good as the chances that New Jerseyans will start keeping their opinions to themselves.
“I don’t think he can win,” said Sheldon Cuffy, who was sitting at a booth. “The bridge thing is going to come back to haunt him.”
As Cuffy glanced over his check, his dining companion volunteered a slightly more nuanced take on Christie’s odds before getting up to leave.
“He probably has a better chance than Trump,” she said, flashing a sarcastic grin.