Chris Christie stepped onto the ABC News stage in New Hampshire with only one goal: Hit Sen. Marco Rubio early and often. The New Jersey governor did just that on Saturday, remaining on message from beginning to end. His performance is unlikely to be enough to change his fate when Granite State Republicans head to the polls on Tuesday, but on this night at least he did the most to help himself of anyone on the national stage.
Christie set the tone early during his first clash with Rubio, who appeared uncharacteristically flustered during what was his weakest debate performance at a time when he needed his strongest. Asked to defend himself from criticism that he doesn’t have the experience needed to be president—a question that Rubio should have known was coming—the Florida senator instead trained his fire on President Obama. “Let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he's doing,” Rubio said after making passing reference to his own time in the Senate and the Florida House. Christie seized on the non sequitur.
“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?” Christie said. “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. It's a different experience.” The New Jersey Republican then made his implicit criticism of Rubio explicit, addressing his rival directly. “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable,” he said. “You just simply haven't.”
Christie appeared to come out on top of that exchange, but any doubt quickly disappeared when Rubio inexplicably opted to defend himself by repeating a portion of his previous response almost verbatim: “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Christie, again, was ready:
You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. This is what Washington, D.C., does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him. See Marco—Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, that memorized speech doesn’t solve one problem for one person.
Time and time again, Christie was able to tout his biggest strengths while pointing out Rubio’s biggest weaknesses. Yes, this is Christie’s debate shtick, but on Saturday it worked better than it has all year. All the more so because Rubio was stuck on repeat throughout the night. “Obamacare was not an accident,” the Florida Republican said later. “The undermining of the Second Amendment is not an accident. The gutting of our military is not an accident.” It was a talking point that would have been more likely to draw applause from a crowd that hadn’t heard it three times that night.
Christie was at his strongest when clashing with Rubio, but he also hit his marks when he wasn’t on the offensive. He handled a question about the nation’s heroin epidemic well—a problem particularly important in New Hampshire—and played relatively nice with Govs. Jeb Bush and John Kasich, a posture that only underscored his argument that governors are better prepared to be president than one-term senators such as Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz.
The governor also benefited from unremarkable performances from the other two front-runners on the stage. Cruz, the Iowa caucus winner, was forced to spend the early part of the debate defending himself (and apologizing to!) Ben Carson for the way his campaign spread rumors on caucus night that the former neurosurgeon was dropping out of the race. New Hampshire polling leader Donald Trump, meanwhile, made the mistake of touting the role of the federal government, first in its responsibility to provide health care to those in need (“We’re going to take care of people that are dying on the street”) and later during his defense of eminent domain, a position unpopular with many New Hampshire conservatives (“You wouldn’t have hospitals, you wouldn’t have anything, you wouldn’t have schools, you wouldn’t have bridges”). Christie was further aided by the fact his other two rivals in the so-called establishment lane—Kasich and Bush—failed to stand out in the same way he did.
To be clear, Christie remains on the outside looking in with less than three days to go until the New Hampshire primary. He’s currently polling in a distant sixth place in the state in the RealClearPolitics average with about 5 percent support, less than a third of that of second-place Rubio (16 percent) and about a sixth of that of polling leader Trump (31 percent). But for two-plus prime-time hours on Saturday, he hit his marks—and his target—and was the only candidate who left the stage in better shape than we he stepped on it.