Elections

Chris Christie relishes role as Marco Rubio’s chief debate foe

Republican presidential candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L-R) line up on the stage at the beginning of a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News at the St. Anselm College Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.
Republican presidential candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (L-R) line up on the stage at the beginning of a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News at the St. Anselm College Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. AP

Marco Rubio knew he’d be the target in Saturday’s Republican presidential debate. But even though he was prepared, things probably didn’t turn out as well as he would have liked.

Rubio, usually an unflappable debater, seemed to get rattled by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has spent the past week singularly focused on the Florida senator. Christie had nothing to lose — he’s trailing Rubio and has pinned his entire candidacy on New Hampshire — and he turned the early part of the debate at Saint Anselm College into a two-man brawl.

That delighted the rest of the Republicans on stage, all hoping to slow Rubio’s ascent after his third-place finish behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and celebrity businessman Donald Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t,” Christie began, likening Rubio to President Barack Obama, who was also a first-term senator when he ran for president. “Do not make the same mistake again.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump thanks supporters after coming in second behind Ted Cruz in the Iowa GOP caucuses Feb. 1, 2016. Supporters filled a ballroom at the Sheraton in West Des Moines.

Rubio then delivered again a line he had used only moments earlier.

“Let’s dispel with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Rubio said, trying to single-handedly undo a message Republicans have been leveling against the president for seven years. “He knows exactly what he’s doing. He is trying to change this country. He wants America to become more like the rest of the world. We don’t want to be like the rest of the world, we want to be the United States of America.”

Christie, who has spent the past week in New Hampshire lambasting Rubio as being rigidly scripted, saw an opening.

“See Marco, Marco, the thing is this, when you’re president of the United States, 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,” he said.

See Marco, Marco, the thing is this, when you’re president of the United States, 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.

Chris Christie

Rubio retorted that Christie didn’t seem to want to solve problems when he hesitated to return to New Jersey for a recent snowstorm.

And then, for the third time, Rubio returned to his line about Obama: “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing is just not true. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The audience, unfriendly toward Rubio and apparently unimpressed by the line, booed. That hadn’t happened to Rubio in a debate before.

“There it is,” Christie said. “The memorized 25-second speech.” The spat continued, with Christie landing the parting shot: “It gets very unruly when he gets off his talking points.”

Christie knew Saturday could be his final debate as a candidate if he doesn’t do well on Tuesday. The same was true for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, himself an increasingly loud Rubio critic. Seven men were on stage — including Trump, who skipped the prior debate in Iowa over a tiff with Fox News — and, for the first time, there was no earlier “undercard” for unpopular candidates.

Three candidates — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — dropped out after Iowa, leaving only former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore to round out the field. Neither made the cut for the stage; Fiorina’s campaign, after vehemently fighting the decision, announced Saturday she and her husband planned “a date night of dinner and a movie” in their hotel room.

Bush, who has stepped up his criticism of Rubio in recent days, let Christie do most of the arguing. Given a chance to engage his one-time mentee, over Bush’s comments in 2012 that Rubio would make a fine running mate for Mitt Romney, Bush offered a backhanded compliment instead.

He may have the skills to be a President of the United States, but we’ve tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence and we got — we didn’t get a leader, we got someone who wants to divide the country up.

Jeb Bush, about Marco Rubio.

“Marco Rubio is a gifted, gifted politician,” Bush said. “And he may have the skills to be a President of the United States, but we’ve tried it the old way with Barack Obama, with soaring eloquence and we got — we didn’t get a leader, we got someone who wants to divide the country up.”

Bush did seem more eager to take on Trump, his favorite foe, over the legal issue of eminent domain.

When Bush accused a Trump development trying “to take the property of an elderly woman on the strip in Atlantic City,” Trump denied the charge. He then drew his index finger to his lips to shush Bush.

The crowd, once again, booed.

The Miami Herald's Patricia Mazzei describes the state of the presidential campaign in Florida, and what, or who, is getting voters excited in 2016.

Miami Herald Political Wrtier Patricia Mazzei is in New Hampshire for the primary. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @PatriciaMazzei

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