Chris Christie entered Wednesday night’s debate with more on the line than any other Republican candidate. According to RealClearPolitics, Christie has fallen in the polls from a high of 20% in December 2013 to a paltry 2% average in the four most recent national polls.
In fact, it’s easy to forget that less than a year ago Christie was the presumptive favorite to win the Republican nomination. As a moderate with a bipartisan record, he was certainly electable; as a boisterous politician for whom the press-coined phrase “street brawler” had practically become a personal trademark, it was impossible for the “establishment” label to become his Achilles’ heel as it has for Jeb Bush.
But Christie’s time on top was short-lived. The lingering damage from the 2013 Bridgegate scandal and Donald Trump’s entry into the race this June undermined Christie’s support both within New Jersey and across the country, and within a week of Trump’s announcement Christie had fallen behind Trump in the polls. Polls have shown that no candidate has hurt Christie more than Donald Trump, with Christie among the most popular “second-choice” candidates among Trump supporters.
Since then, two mediocre debate performances haven’t helped Christie’s case, and coming into the debate on Wednesday night, Christie was truly on the bubble: Fox Business had just announced that a 2.5% national polling average would be the price of admission to their November primetime debate, and he had barely a week left to gain the support he needed. A lackluster performance in the CNBC debate in Boulder would probably mean a failure to even appear in the next primetime debate in Milwaukee, and by extension the end of Christie’s campaign. Failure was not an option.
Initially, it didn’t seem like Christie would rise to the occasion. His response to the first question about personal weaknesses seemed forced, a predictable diatribe against the Democratic candidates with a clichéd closing line (“Take it to the bank!”) that simply fell flat. However, over the next hour and a half, Christie gradually began to build momentum. First he delivered a solid response about Social Security reform, discussing means-testing, which has become a more mainstream concept among most Republicans in recent months, and delivering an effective response to criticism from Mike Huckabee on the issue.
“The only way we’re going to be moral, the only way we’re going to keep our promise to seniors,” Christie said, “is to start by following the first rule we should all follow, which is to look at them, treat them like adults, and tell them the truth.” The mixed reaction from the crowd and the other candidates onstage exposed the deep divisions within the Republican Party on Social Security, but at the very least Christie was able to draw attention to himself and deliver a respectable rebuttal to Huckabee, who is one of his rivals at the bottom of the primetime barrel and desperate for a spot onstage in Milwaukee next month.
Christie’s shining moment didn’t come until the last thirty or forty minutes of the debate. As CNBC moderator Carl Quintanilla and Gov. Jeb Bush engaged in a discussion about the legality of betting in fantasy football leagues, Christie took control of the situation and interjected, drawing laughter from the crowd as he asked incredulously “Carl, are we really talking about getting government involved in fantasy football?”
Seizing on his sudden control of the stage, Christie launched into a justified criticism of the quality of the CNBC moderators’ questions. “Wait a second, we have $19 trillion in debt. We have people out of work. We have ISIS and al Qaeda attacking us. And we’re talking about fantasy football? Can we stop?” The resulting round of applause may have been the loudest of the entire night.
Christie then faced a question on climate change from John Harwood. When Harwood interrupted Christie early on in his answer, the New Jersey governor shot back in classic aggressive style, asking indignantly, “John, do you want me to answer or do you want to answer?” and going on to say “I’ve got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude,” drawing loud laughter and applause from the audience. He went on to again distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican field with a deft response that emphasized public-private cooperation and New Jersey’s success in the solar energy sector.
After a solid closing statement in which he challenged the Republican primary voters to “elect someone who’s deadly serious about changing this culture,” Christie walked off-stage as one of the night’s biggest winners. Among all of the candidates who were also “on the bubble” coming into Wednesday night’s debate, including Huckabee, Sen. Rand Paul, and Gov. John Kasich, Christie almost certainly put in the strongest performance. We finally got to see a bit of the old, charismatic, combative Christie tonight, don’t be surprised if he climbs enough in the polls to not only feature in next month’s primetime debate, but even to move closer to center stage.