Forget that Chris Christie got bumped from the primetime debate for a smaller stage with lesser-polling Republican rivals. The New Jersey Governor’s performance Tuesday in a Fox Business battle showed that he has already flash-forwarded to a general election against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
As former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania tried to challenge their brash rival, Christie was settling into a role for the next year: the party’s leading critic of Clinton.
“The bottom line is, believe me, Hillary Clinton’s coming for your wallet everybody,” Christie said. “Don’t worry about Huckabee or Jindal. Worry about her.”
It was as though the bombastic Christie hadn’t been told that he was standing beside some of the weakest-polling peers in the GOP. He came out ready for a fight and, instead of pouncing on those standing between him and the Republican nomination, he imagined he was debating Clinton. The result was a stunning indictment from the former U.S. Attorney on Clinton and her policies.
It might have been a good bet. It was the tactic that Carly Fiorina used during the campaign’s first debate. By the time the second debate came, Fiorina was elevated from also-ran status. Christie hopes that the smaller debate—fewer rivals competing for airtime—will give him similar opportunities and send him back to the grown-up table by the time the candidates meet in a little over a month.
But moving to the undercard gave at least one hungry rivals who has been relegated to the lower tier an opportunity to pounce. Jindal, who has stopped just short of changing his residency to Iowa in a long shot bid to pull off a Santorum-esque come from behind victory in the state, repeatedly assailed Christie’s fiscal record in New Jersey, a state which has suffered repeated credit downgrades.
“If Republicans want to win national elections, let’s be conservatives, let’s be Republicans, let’s not be a second version of the liberal party, let’s cut government spending and grow the American economy,” Jindal sniped at Christie, who is often wrongly seen as a moderate among activists. “It’s not enough just to beat Hillary Clinton. We’ve got to change the direction of our country.”
But he also veered toward the petty at other times. “I’ll give you a ribbon for participation and juice box,” he added in the night’s most memorable line, as Christie highlighted his state’s Democratic-controlled legislature. “But in the real world, it’s about results.”
Christie, who has faced far worse during marathon town hall-style meetings in New Jersey, Iowa and New Hampshire, was unfazed. He kept his focus on Clinton, whom he called “the real adversary.”
“If you listen to Hillary Clinton, she has made it very clear, she believes that she can make decisions for you better than you can make them for yourself,” Christie said. “She believes that Washington, D.C., should pick the winners and losers in our economy, and in our life. And here’s what I believe as a Republican, I believe the greatness of America is not in its government. the greatness of America is in the american people and what we need to do is get the government the hell out of the way and let the American people win once again.”
There is no love lost between the two governors, who clashed repeatedly at the Republican Governors Association. Christie declined to take Jindal’s bait, pivoting back to Clinton. For Christie, the strategy was to punch up, not horizontally. Hitting downward would only make him look weaker.
The debate also tried, however briefly, to pitch the Republicans as advocates for poor Americans, who have proved impossible for the GOP to win in national elections.
“The most important business is the family,” Santorum said, returning to themes of family values that are central to his candidacy.
So, too, did Huckabee. “Having grown up poor, I know a little something about it. No one who is poor wants to be,” he said.
For most, it was really an audition for these candidates to win a spot on the eventual nominee’s shortlist for VP or, perhaps more realistically, a slot in the roster of spokesmen who get booked on cable news. By that measure, Christie was the winner of the undercard event.
Even when asked about Chinese espionage and cyber-attacks, Christie found an easy pathway to pivot to Clinton. Christie blamed Chinese aggression is because “an absolutely weak and feckless foreign policy that was engineered by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.” He added: “The Chinese don’t take us seriously, and why should they?” He then promised that, if elected, he would protest Chinese efforts to build man-man island over mineral-rich waters in the South China Sea. “I’ll fly Air Force One over those islands,” Christie said with a smirk. “They’ll know we mean business.”
His Republican rivals should consider it a warning shot. If Christie keeps this pace and tone, he might be closer to the nomination than the polling suggests.