It had the makings of one of the most unusual buddy flicks in American politics. Two current governors and one former get together on stage and team up against the rival whose popularity is on the rise.
Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich each made a late-hour pitch for support in New Hampshire during Saturday night’s debate.
The three are struggling in a still-large field, but combined they are the favorite candidate for about a quarter of New Hampshire’s voters if polls are to be believed. Many wise New Hampshire veterans actually predict these three will do better than the polls suggest.
The three also had a détente of sorts, instead keeping their criticism aimed at better-polling foes. (Kasich, in typical style, landed a blow against New Jersey. Keeping kind is tough for Ohio Governor.) “I trust Kasich and Christie,” Bush said, lending support to his pals. “Jeb is right,” Kasich chimed in later. “He’s done a very good job as Governor of Ohio,” Christie said.
Their biggest task was to dent Rubio, and they accomplished that. In one of the most compelling changes, Christie was dogged in his criticism of Rubio. The two are fighting for many of the same voters in New Hampshire.
“Every morning when a United States Senator wakes up, they think about, ‘What kind of speech can I give or what kind of bill can I drop?’ Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me?”
Christie said, putting forward an argument for his campaign and against Rubio’s.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” Christie continued. “You just simply haven’t.”
Even on his accomplishments, Christie kept hammering. “You talk about the Hezbollah Sanctions Act that you list as one of your accomplishments. … You weren’t even there to vote for it. That’s not leadership, that’s truancy,” he said to applause.
In a moment that will be fodder for any number of Rubio foes, Christie then suggested Rubio was little more than a vessel for “memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.”
It was one of the most difficult encounters for Rubio, who placed a surprisingly strong third place in Iowa and arrived in New Hampshire with momentum—and a giant bullseye on his campaign.
Bush, a former mentor to Rubio, added to the pile-on, arguing that running a state is more useful than chairing a committee in the Senate. “I served as Governor of the state of Florida, where we cut taxes and reduced government,” he said. “I took on very powerful interests, forged consensus, fought for my beliefs, implemented them and the state was better off. ”
Rubio’s increasing stock stood to be blunted by the Governors. Systematically, they challenged Rubio’s resume, asking if a first-term Senator deserved to be rising just days before New Hampshire picks.
“When you’re a Governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person. They expect you to plow the snow. They expect you to get the schools open,” Christie said.
Coming days before New Hampshire has its first-in-the-nation primary, the debates gave the governors’ closing arguments a chance to break through the race’s noise, given the fade of Rubio in recent days and the chipping veneer of support of Donald Trump.
Republicans typically give governors strong looks for their nomination, but the field this year has already shed three from its ranks: Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Texas’ Rick Perry and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. The three Governors who remained on stage Saturday night were trying to spark Republicans’ imagination that a state executive with a record worth judging could get the job done. (Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore remains in the race, but has zero traction. Proof? He is inviting supporters to watch the Puppy Bowl with him on Sunday.)
But it’s not clear that these governors can convince the Establishment-minded Republicans to coalesce around just one of them, or that voters are looking for resumes this go ’round. Each has made the case he can do well in New Hampshire and the debate reminded voters that the governors are credible candidates. The super PACs backing them are looking ahead to South Carolina’s primary, which rewards tough talk and has the stomach to handle dirty tricks.
That’s where the race is heading. Cruz’s supporters used trickery in Iowa to suggest that Ben Carson was leaving the campaign. Some of the nastiest ads have been on Christian radio attacking Cruz for not giving 10% of his income to charity, per tithing rules. Tens of millions of dollars in ads are already teed up in South Carolina. The governors are just hoping they’re still in the mix when South Carolina votes on Feb. 20.