The biggest question heading into Tuesday night’s Republican “undercard” debate in Milwaukee was whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie could win a get-out-of-a-jail card and rejoin the ranks of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and the other top tier candidates in the crowded GOP field.
After he and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee were demoted from the big stage of tonight’s fourth GOP presidential debate because of their mediocre showings in the polls, Christie needed a boffo performance like the one former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina delivered in the first junior debate in early August.
While it remains to be seen if Christie will get the big bump his campaign so desperately needs, he unquestionably delivered a strong performance. And he did it mainly by acting as if he were already the GOP presidential nominee and by focusing on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not his GOP rivals.
“She is the real adversary tonight,” he said at one point.
Christie seemed more polished and focused than the three others on the stage, Huckabee, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. In kicking off the debate, Christie used a vivid anecdote from a recent trip to New Hampshire to explain what he would do to improve the economy.
“A woman approached me after the town hall meeting and she said to me, ‘Governor I’m really concerned.’
“I said, what are your concerns? She said, ‘I don’t know quite how to describe it, but every month when my bills come in, I feel this awful anxiety in the pit of my stomach that I’m not going to have enough money to pay them that month.’”
“There are tens of millions of Americans living that way after the worst recovery from an economic recession since World War II,” he added. “And let’s be clear. If we do not change course, if we follow the president’s lead – and that’s exactly what Secretary Clinton will do – we’re going to be in the same circumstance, with government picking the winners and losers.”
The story was reminiscent of Christie’s emotional, impromptu remarks caught on tape in New Hampshire recently about a law school friend who died of a drug overdose. The video went viral on the internet and sparked renewed interest in his campaign.
Later in the evening, when asked how Republicans can match the Democratic Party in offering immediate tangible economic and educational assistance, Christie said that what Democrats “forgot to tell you is that they’re going to raise your tax rate to 70 or 80 percent in order to provide all that stuff.”
At another point, he said, “Hillary Clinton is coming for your wallet, everybody! Don’t worry about Jindal or Huckabee, worry about her.”
If Christie walked away the winner, Jindal’s star continued to fall.
Jindal was the aggressor from the opening. He constantly criticized Christie’s economic track record in New Jersey, portraying him as a “Big Government Republican” who has increased government spending and boosted other programs like food stamps.
“Chris, look, I’ll give you a ribbon for participation and a juice box,” Jindal said in a patronizing way. “But in the real world it’s about results.”
Christie refused to take the bait, though, redirecting the conversation back to Clinton’s time as the nation’s top diplomat and former First Lady and invoking her name at least a dozen times.
“Hillary Clinton doesn’t want one minute on that stage with me next September when I’m debating her and prosecuting her for her vision of America,” he said.
Once a high-flying candidate fresh from a major gubernatorial reelection victory in November 2013, Christie’s presidential fortunes have been on a downhill trajectory amid the stubborn negative fallout from the “Bridgegate” scandal in which members of his staff orchestrated a monumental bridge traffic jam as an act of political retribution.
Although he lags far behind Trump, Carson and others with a mere 2.2 percent of the Republican vote according to the latest Real Clear Politics national polling averages, Christie’s numbers are rising in New Hampshire, where drug abuse now ranks number one among voters, above jobs and the economy. Christie has long argued that drug treatment is far preferable to incarceration.
As for the other new addition to the kids’ table, Huckabee entered the 2016 race hoping that his firebrand rhetoric would ignite social conservatives and make him the darling of evangelicals.
Instead, those groups have gravitated toward non-politicians like Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul, and retired neurosurgeon Carson. While Huckabee has delivered a few good lines during each of the top-tier debates, Huckabee failed to generate any momentum for his candidacy.
Tuesday night played out much the same way, with the former governor delivering few memorable lines and using most of his time to call abolishing the IRS.
Meanwhile, Santorum was a non-factor. He has sought to recapture some of the magic that propelled him to victory in nine primaries, including the influential Iowa caucus, in 2012. He’s staked his candidacy on trying to win the Hawkeye State for a second time, but so far, he hasn’t gained any traction in the polls.
The only memorable moment for him came in response to a question about whom in the Democratic Party the contenders admired. Santorum surprisingly shouted into his microphone that he admired Democrats “Because they fight!”
Besides Christie’s performance, Tuesday night’s undercard debate differed from the last three in another way: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Governor George Pataki failed to garner enough support to make the cut and were bounced from the proceedings.