New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says his rival Marco Rubio is inexperienced, dependent on scripts and that a key moment in last week’s debate proved that the Florida Senator does not have what it takes to confront Democrat Hillary Clinton in a general election.
Christie said the most telling moment of the debate came after Rubio had answered a question from host Neil Cavuto about their recent verbal war of words. “When I went to answer him, he couldn’t look at me in the eye,” Christie said of Rubio, “and he never came back at me until he went back to New Hampshire, when I wasn’t there to answer him.”
Christie saw Rubio’s avoidance of confrontation as a sign of weakness. “I think that’s just a sign of his inexperience, and if he can’t look me in the eye, he’s not going to be able to look Hillary Clinton in the eye, he’s certainly not going to be able to look Vladimir Putin in the eye,” Christie said.
In an interview with TIME Sunday in Sioux City before the final town halls of the day, Christie discussed his newfound focus in Iowa and the state of his campaign in New Hampshire. The outspoken governor said he hopes to finish first among governors in both states, and said he is already working the phones to get fellow executive office holders to endorse him after the first two contests.
Christie also reflected on coming under attack for shifting his positions on abortion and gun control, while defending his past statement in support of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Christie also mocked Rubio for a new ad he’s airing in Iowa touting that he’s against amnesty after co-authoring the Gang of Eight immigration bill. “Man, I don’t know. He’s the guy who wrote the amnesty bill, now all the sudden there won’t be, and his rationale is because he discovered terrorism in the last 24 months,” Christie said. “All his deep time on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he didn’t know about al-Qaeda?”
Asked about front runner Donald Trump’s influence in the race, Christie said it confirmed his commitment to speaking bluntly. “It just reinforces that people are tired of kind of the Rubio-esque, practiced, rehearsed, pre-canned stuff,” he said of Trump.
The below transcript has been edited for clarity:
TIME: Here you are back in Iowa — last year your campaign was New Hampshire–centric. What changed?
CHRIS CHRISTIE: It seems like things have really improved here. And I think the super PAC is actually starting to spend some money here, and I assume they’re doing that for a reason. And I feel like we’ve got a really good organization here and a chance to do well. I’m going to spend more time here, I’m going to spend another five days here before the caucuses. In the meantime, I’ll spend the next six days in New Hampshire, and then the last eight days of that race. So in the last three weeks, I’ll have spent 14 of the 21 days in New Hampshire.
What’s the goal there?
Same thing. Same thing. It’s to come out of a field that had 17 people, nine current and former governors, and be the governor who survives.
And being the last governor standing would be the right contrast?
Yeah. I think you’ve seen a number of people write after the debates on Thursday that it’s really a four-person race now, that it’s me and [Texas Senator Ted] Cruz and Rubio and Trump. I like my chances in that race being the only governor and running against two first-term U.S. Senators and a businessman. I like my chances.
You’re relying on governors. When will they endorse?
I think that for any of the governors, what you had to prove you’re viable. In a field that big, I’m not going to go and start asking governors to do this on the basis of friendship. I had to prove to them that I’m viable, and I’m proving that now. And so we’re having conversations.
You don’t have much of an organization after New Hampshire. How will you move forward?
I think part of it is that momentum helps you to create that. There will be a lot of people out of work after that who are going to be looking to latch on with a new candidate. We do have people in South Carolina already working. And I do think that if I’m fortunate to get the support of a number of governors, which I think I can, their organizations are already up and running in their states on their behalf. I would hope that if they endorse me they will put their organizations to work for me in those states.
You’ve been taking a lot more flack lately. What does it say that you’re now a target?
It says I’m the threat. We’ve all watched politics long enough to know, you don’t shoot backwards. You shoot out either next to you or ahead of you. And I think that Senator Rubio sees that over the long haul, I’m the more dangerous candidate to any hope that he has of being the nominee. So that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing. But it’s kind of funny, this is the guy who’s on stage lecturing everybody about negative campaigning — even before he says things, he says, ‘I don’t like negative campaigning, but,’ and he picks up a piece of paper that’s obviously been written for him — as much of his stuff is — by somebody else, and then he reads it. I said the other day, I thought the most telling part of that debate was after Neil asked the question and Marco went through his answer. When I went to answer him, he couldn’t look at me in the eye, and he never came back at me until he went back to New Hampshire, when I wasn’t there to answer him. I think that’s just a sign of his inexperience, and if he can’t look me in the eye, he’s not going to be able to look Hillary Clinton in the eye, he’s certainly not going to be able to look Vladimir Putin in the eye.
So you think he’s reading off a script?
Yes. Yeah, he’s reading off a script all the time. I mean, he’s reading off a script at the debates too. I don’t know where exactly he gets it from, but he comes up and writes furiously on his pad and then reads it and then folds it up and puts it in his pocket.
And you don’t do that?
I wrote four phrases on my paper. I had nothing else on there for the rest of the debate. Because what I actually do is listen to the questions and answer them. I don’t give pre-prepared speeches.
You seemed to have a stronger language on abortion today [in response to a question from an audience member].
I thought that woman was much more intense about it than most people who talk about it, so I wanted her to understand exactly where I was coming from. And it’s always been what I’ve talked about, because that’s the truth. I wasn’t always pro-life but I have been for the last 21 years. She seemed to be very intense about the issue, so I wanted to give her a more complete answer than somebody who maybe seems less intense about the issue. That’s all about feeling the room. How much I go on about a particular topic is much more about what I read from the person who asks the question in terms of how much more information they’re looking for. And as I was talking she seemed to want more, so I gave her more. If she seemed content, I would have stopped. But that’s really what I’ve learned over time and doing over 200 of these. If you’re paying attention, you can read the questioner, and when they’re content you stop, and when they want more, you try to give them more if you have more to give.
That conversion on life is something Rubio is hitting you on. How much do you feel you have to explain that?
On the pro-life, I don’t think I really have to at all. I mean, it’s been 21 years. So if advocating publicly as I have for the last 21 years on an issue isn’t good enough for someone, they’re not going to vote for me anyway.
What do you make of the anger and frustration this cycle? Do you have to reflect that?
I think you only reflect that which you genuinely agree. So, I feel that anxiety and that fear as to the national-security and homeland-security issues, and I think I speak directly and passionately about that. So I think you have to be genuine, because if you’re faking, most of the people catching up with you. It may take a while, but they’ll catch up with you. I just try to talk about those issues in the way that I really feel them. And I also do feel that people need to think about what are the results of our anger, like how can we take the anger and the frustration and make it positive, and not just an expression of anger and frustration. So, I think I’m starting to close on that now because people are starting to make decisions. We’re at a different stage of things now, and I can just tell by the reactions of the crowds that people are in deciding mode now. I’m an old prosecutor, you make the best closing argument you can.
Have you learned anything from Trump?
It just kind of reinforces the fact that people want to hear things straight, blunt and direct. That’s something I’ve been doing for a long time. It just reinforces that people are tired of kind of the Rubio-esque, practiced, rehearsed, pre-canned stuff. We’ve all heard Marco’s stories before, it’s time for us to hear something different. I saw a commercial this morning in Iowa, where he said there would be no amnesty in a Rubio administration. Man, I don’t know. He’s the guy who wrote the amnesty bill, now all the sudden there won’t be, and his rationale is because he discovered terrorism in the last 24 months. All his deep time on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he didn’t know about al-Qaeda? He didn’t know about al-Qaeda in 2013 when he was writing the Gang of Eight bill with Chuck Schumer. I think people are going to start to see him for being disingenuous. Just tell them — just say you changed your mind. If you changed your mind about amnesty, if you were for amnesty when you were with Chuck Schumer and now you’re against it, then say it. But don’t try to use terrorism as an excuse. I mean really, as if we didn’t have terrorism before? That’d be news to all the prosecutors and agents who have been working to prevent it for all these years since 9/11. And he tends to try to sell himself as an expert on it. So he should just be honest about it.