Milwaukee — Armed with well-rehearsed opposition research on his fellow Republicans, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal spent Tuesday night on the attack. But Chris Christie, whose fiscal record Jindal skewered, emerged as the winner of the undercard debate.
Despite repeated jabs from Jindal, Christie refused to take the bait, promising to keep his “eye on the ball” and focus his fire on Hillary Clinton.
In perhaps the most poignant moment of the Fox Business debate, Christie came to the defense of Mike Huckabee, whom Jindal had accused of reckless spending during his tenure as governor of Arkansas.
“Let me just say this in response to this back and forth,” Christie said, turning first toward Jindal and then speaking directly into the camera. “If you don’t think Mike Huckabee will be the kind of president who will cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait ’til you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country. She will drown us in debt.”
The audience exploded in applause, and Christie raised his voice so he could be heard over the din: “She is the real adversary tonight, and we better stay focused as Republicans on her.”
In delivering a series of broadsides against his rivals, but particularly against Christie, Jindal came up against a fundamental truth of this campaign season: After watching Mitt Romney torn apart by his primary opponents in 2012, Republican primary voters do not want to see candidates attack each other on stage. Rather, they appear inclined toward those who are directing their barbs at Clinton and using the debates to let voters determine who is best equipped to defeat her next year.
‘I complimented Bobby. Imagine how much time he’d want [to respond] if I actually criticized him.’
Jindal tried time and again to differentiate himself by attacking the records of his adversaries — whether it was Huckabee for allowing spending to balloon on his watch, or Santorum for his failure to cut spending during his tenure as a senator from Pennsylvania, or Christie for the credit downgrades New Jersey has suffered on his watch.
Christie, who was picking up momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire just as news broke last week that he did not qualify for the main debate in Milwaukee, parried Jindal with ease, turning in a performance that garnered unambiguously positive reviews.
“I do think that Governor Christie probably had the best night, because of trying to draw contrasts with Hillary Clinton,” said Fox News anchor Bret Baier shortly after the debate. “I think that will resonate in the Republican primary.”
Not only did Christie dismiss Jindal’s attacks; he repeatedly praised his gubernatorial counterpart’s record and said he wasn’t interested in comparing their job performances.
Jindal was relentless, dismissing Christie’s refusal to engage as disingenuous, and casting his attacks as an important attempt to shape the future of the Republican party.
“The most important thing for the American people is they got to see . . . somebody who’s willing to stand up for conservative principles and call out big-government Republicans,” Jindal told reporters after the debate. GOP voters are tired, he said, of choosing between “honest socialists on the left and lying conservatives on the right.”
At one point during the debate, nodding toward Christie, Jindal said: “Sending a big-government Republican to D.C. is not enough to fix this problem. It’s not enough just to beat Hillary Clinton. We’ve got to change the direction of our country.”
The barbs succeeded only in eliciting jokes from Christie, who responded at one point, “I complimented Bobby. Imagine how much time he’d want [to respond] if I actually criticized him.”
#share#The hour-long debate was mostly free of the fireworks — including bashing of the moderators, who were largely inconspicuous — that defined the most recent pair of debates in Colorado. Only once, when Wall Street Journal editor Gerald Seib asked the candidates to name a Democratic member of Congress they could work with, did anyone criticize the questioning. (All four candidates refused to answer.)
The debate had something of a placid pace, with candidates allowed 90 seconds to answer each question and 60 seconds for rebuttals. Both Huckabee and Santorum turned in steady if unspectacular performances, and the subject matter hewed closely to economic themes, offering limited opportunities for internecine battles. The only volleys of the evening were instigated by Jindal.
The Christie team saved its punches for the spin room, where chief strategist Mike DuHaime was not shy about criticizing Jindal, whom he described as “desperate” and eager to get a bump in the polls.
“Just because someone tries to bait you all the time because they’re desperate and need to get up in the polls does not mean you have to do that,” DuHaime told reporters. Christie, he said, stayed “above that.”
Voters, particularly in New Hampshire and Iowa, have heard Christie defend his record. Tonight, DuHaime tells NR, the focus was rightly on Hillary Clinton. “Republican voters want somebody who can defeat Hillary Clinton and stay focused on Hillary Clinton, not squabbling amongst ourselves. Most Republican voters like multiple . . . candidates and are thinking about supporting many of them, so we kept the focus on Hillary Clinton because that’s where the voters want it to be.”
Jindal, meanwhile, continued his assault after the debate’s conclusion. Speaking to Fox News’s Lou Dobbs, Jindal said — sardonically — that he doesn’t blame Christie for only wanting to talk about Clinton because, “He can’t defend his record.”
Points for aggressiveness may have been undermined by his occasional condescending tone. At one point Jindal told Christie he deserved a “ribbon for participation” in the fight against Obamacare, and said he could have a juice box too.
#related#Christie looked puzzled. “Listen, we’ve stopped Obamacare in New Jersey because we refuse to participate in the federal exchange,” he said. “But here’s the bigger issue: What do you think is gonna happen when Hillary Clinton’s elected president of the United States?”
He continued: “The fact is we need someone who knows how to beat Democrats — who knows how to beat Democrats in a Democratic area. I’ve done it twice as governor of New Jersey, and 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 for America.”
It’s the message Republican voters want to hear, and one that may earn Christie a return to the main stage when the GOP candidates reconvene next month.
Alexis Levinson contributed to the reporting of this piece.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review. Tim Alberta is chief political correspondent for National Review.