Politics & Policy

Christie Revels in Rubio Takedown — But Did It Come Too Late?

Christie speaks at Shooter’s Pub in Exeter, N.H., February 6, 2016. (Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty)

Exeter, N.H. — Chris Christie said Sunday that Marco Rubio is no longer “the anointed one” after he tripped up during last night’s presidential debate, responding to Christie’s criticisms with a performance that has indeed disrupted the momentum of his ascent nationally and in New Hampshire.

But with dozens of polls over the past month showing Christie stuck in single digits here — and the Granite State’s primary two days away — New Jersey’s governor was also forced to confront questions about whether he should have attacked Rubio earlier in the Republican debate season.

“No. Listen, you all are the junior political analysts here. I actually do this for a living,” Christie told a crowd of dozens of reporters here outside a local pub, as his entourage roared with laughter.

Pressed on the last-minute nature of his confrontation with Rubio, Christie said, “I picked when I wanted to do it, and I did it. So no, I don’t have any second thoughts.”

Prior to Saturday, Christie spent much of the GOP debate season refusing to criticize his rivals for the nomination. Aside from regularly articulating the differences between governors and senators — often to break up testy exchanges between Rubio and Cruz — Christie has refrained from engaging opponents directly. On several occasions, he even scolded his competitors for fighting among themselves, arguing that they should instead turn their fire on the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton.

That strategy shifted abruptly in Manchester — which was the plan all along, according to Christie, who said he “didn’t make any secret” of his forthcoming assault on Rubio prior to the debate.

RELATED: Rubio’s Momentum Stalls in New Hampshire Debate

“I told all of you,” he said. “I can’t tell how many times you all asked me, ‘When are you going to engage this person, that person?’ I told you I would do it in a place and a time of my choosing. And I did it in a place and a time of my choosing. And I did it well.”

Christie was widely credited with flustering Rubio on Saturday night. The senator responded by repeating a clearly rehearsed line — almost verbatim — after Christie accused him of delivering “memorized speeches.” As the exchange went on, and Christie kept attacking, Rubio repeated the line a third time, prompting Christie to go in for the kill. “There it is, there it is,” he said. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody.” 

The audience buzzed with laughter and applause. Reporters and pundits led their analyses with commentary on Rubio’s comeuppance. Democrats launched a social-media campaign depicting him as a robot. And his campaign quickly went into damage-control mode.

#share#The impact of the exchange on Christie’s candidacy was not immediately clear. The New Jersey governor’s unfavorable ratings have remained persistently high throughout the campaign, and attacking Rubio, whom some polls show to be the best-liked Republican candidate, migh not gain Christie any ground. While his broadside against Rubio could prove detrimental to the surging senator’s performance on Tuesday, there’s a real possibility that Jeb Bush or John Kasich will be the ultimate beneficiary.

RELATED: On Marco Rubio and Chris Christie’s Brutal Exchange

On Sunday, Christie continued his anti-Rubio onslaught, telling a packed room of bar patrons here that Rubio “melted” under the “bright lights” in Manchester. 

“If I do that [to] him, when we agree on most things, imagine what would happen if he were on the stage against Hillary Clinton,” Christie said. “We cannot put someone inexperienced on that stage with her.”

A short while later, speaking to reporters outside, Christie added of Rubio: “The anointed one, last night, didn’t look like he was ready for the game.”

Christie’s sudden aggression marks a dramatic reversal in tone and tactics. As recently as mid January, during a debate in South Carolina, he refused to criticize Rubio — even as his rival launched a string of attacks on him from several podiums away.

“Two years ago he called me a conservative reformer that New Jersey needed,” Christie said, nodding toward Rubio. “That was before he was running against me. Now that he is, he changed his tune. I’m never going to change my tune. I like Marco Rubio. He is a good guy, a smart guy, and he would be a heck of a lot better president than Hillary Rodham Clinton would ever be.”

Having spent his debate appearances pulling punches on fellow Republicans, Christie seemed liberated to finally let loose on Rubio Saturday. But his change in strategy amounted to an acknowledgment that the Florida senator had begun to consolidate the same support Christie needs to win if he hopes to sustain his candidacy beyond Tuesday.

And it may have come too late to make a difference. 

#related#New Hampshire’s electorate is known for last-minute movement, with voters evaluating candidates all the way up until primary day. But Christie, locked in a four-way fight with Rubio, Bush, and Kasich for the state’s center-right voters, has seen his numbers flatline. Of the dozens of public polls taken in the last month, the New Jersey governor has not reached double digits once.

Still, he insisted that he has no regrets.

“This is a process, and I have a strategy, and I’ve had a strategy all along. And it’s not apparent to all of you because I don’t want it to be apparent to all of you — because I don’t want it to be apparent to my opponents, thank you. So we did what we needed to do last night.”

— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.

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