(CNN) – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired his deputy chief of staff on Thursday, admonishing Bridget Anne Kelly in harsh terms during a marathon Trenton press conference about the still-unfolding George Washington Bridge imbroglio.
But the scandal claimed another victim, stunning close-watchers of Christie and his tightly-knit operation: Bill Stepien, a sharp-elbowed strategist who managed Christie's two gubernatorial campaigns and was primed to play a senior role in a likely 2016 presidential bid.
Stepien "was asked to leave my organization," Christie said, telling reporters that he had withdrawn his support for Stepien to take over the New Jersey Republican Party. Stepien's consulting contract with the Christie-helmed Republican Governors Association was also terminated.
Though little known outside of New Jersey circles, Stepien was one of Christie's most trusted senior advisers, ranking just beneath political guru Mike DuHaime and longtime confidante Bill Palatucci in the governor's political hierarchy.
"There's no doubt that Bill has been one of my closest advisers over the last five years," Christie said. "And so for that too I am sad today to have to take this action. But I also know that I have a job to do. And it's the job that I've asked the people of New Jersey to entrust me with. And I can never allow personal feelings or long-standing relationships to get in the way of doing my job the way it's appropriate to do it."
Christie's decision to cut Stepien loose is akin to President Obama firing an aide as high-ranking as David Plouffe or David Axelrod.
"This is a huge, huge deal," said one Trenton insider. "This was the governor's guy."
This person said Stepien's influence in the state capital, and with Christie, expanded between the campaigns of 2009 and 2013, with DuHaime and Palatucci spending more and more time cultivating the governor's national image and building a wide-reaching donor base.
Stepien was often at the governor's side throughout the campaign of 2013, and sometimes traveled around the country with him for political and finance events.
"Stepien was the third leg of the stool running things in New Jersey," the source said. "To me, this is a true indicator of the governor's leadership. He is putting aside a guy that just this week he called the best Republican operative in the country because he saw impropriety."
Three words surfaced repeatedly Thursday in conversations with a dozen Republicans who have worked with Stepien: intense, disciplined and loyal, both to Christie and members of his staff.
Notorious for his short temper, he had very little patience with those who disagreed with him or were perceived as untrustworthy.
"Bill is smart and tenacious, a great guy to have on your side, but someone you don't want to cross," said an aide to another Republican governor. "He's the enforcer of Christie-world."
Stepien did not respond to an email seeking comment after Christie's press conference, and a Christie spokesman did not respond when asked if the governor would continue to receive any kind of political advice from Stepien.
Known to some friends as "Step," his backers describe him as a workaholic fiercely dedicated to the numbers-driven, nuts-and-bolts aspects of campaigns, a habit formed over the course of more than a decade of work as a field director for a range of GOP candidates.
"He is intensely focused on his job," said one Republican who has worked under him. "He works 25 hours a day. But he is also a guy's guy. He is somebody who one minute will be intensely focused on an issue, and a minute later cracking wise or talking about the Jets."
"This is probably one of his one of toughest days," the Republican added.
Stepien's resume gleams with high-level jobs that prepared him for a potential Christie presidential run: He was New Hampshire field director for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, and went on to serve as national field director for the ill-fated presidential efforts of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain in 2008.
Stepien would go on to manage Christie's surprising 2009 gubernatorial win in New Jersey, as well as his blowout re-election win last November.
He also steered the 2003 New Jersey Assembly campaign of Bill Baroni – a Republican that Christie appointed to a top post at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Baroni, of course, was a key figure in the bridge scandal that led to Stepien's termination on Thursday.
Stepien's name surfaced in emails leaked to the press on Wednesday, a revealing string of conversations between Christie allies that propelled a simmering local news story into a national drama - and the first full-blown political crisis for Christie and his ambitious team of advisers.
In exchanges with David Wildstein, another top figure at the Port Authority, Stepien described the mayor of Fort Lee as an "idiot." The emails also suggested that Stepien was aware of the maneuvering by that led to the lane closures - despite assurances from Christie in December that neither he nor his staff knew anything about the process that led to bridge shutdown last fall.
"I was disturbed by the tone and behavior and attitude of callous indifference that was displayed in the emails by my former campaign manager, Bill Stepien," Christie said in Thursday's marathon press conference in Trenton. "And reading that, it made me lose my confidence in Bill's judgment."
Christie, the newly-minted chairman of the RGA, had recently installed Stepien in a key advisory role at the influential committee. The governor had also recommended that he take over the New Jersey Republican Party.
Both jobs would have given Stepien a foothold in national Republican politics as Christie quietly plants the seeds for a presidential campaign. But on Thursday, Christie said he instructed Stepien to step down from the RGA and withdraw his name from consideration for the New Jersey GOP job.
"He was going to be at the RGA and going to lead the state party, and in 24 hours that's all gone," said a GOP operative who has been in the campaign trenches with Stepien. "That's a shocking thing. It goes to show that what the governor is saying is true - if you are going to cut someone like Bill, that's one the toughest personnel decisions that the governor would have to make."
As for Stepien's hard-edged reputation, one Republican who worked with him on last year's campaign had a straightforward explanation: "I would think sharp elbows are standard operating procedure for New Jersey."