In the final debate before the first contests on the Republican presidential primary calendar, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) unleashed on former President Donald Trump – and admonished his three rivals on stage for not doing the same.
Trump has skipped all four debates to date, including Wednesday’s forum at the University of Alabama that was broadcast by NewsNation. A number of candidate withdrawals and the Republican Party’s escalating eligibility criteria meant that only Christie, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy duked it out on stage.
Absent or not, Trump remains the prohibitive favorite in the presidential primary with a massive lead in the polls. And only Christie, whose entire candidacy has been a mission to force the Republican Party to confront its toxic relationship with the former president, treated Trump like the front-runner that he is.
Christie’s admonishments, coming at what could be the last debate – the Republican National Committee has not announced plans for a fifth, and it’s unclear if it or another group will hold one in the future – highlighted the lack of impact the candidate showdowns have had on the race so far. Despite never showing his face on a debate stage, Trump has maintained the massive lead he held when the candidates first gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in August.
Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News and NBC host who moderated the debate alongside NewsNation’s Elizabeth Vargas and Washington Free Beacon Editor-in-Chief Eliana Johnson, asked Christie an obvious question about his underdog candidacy: How can he win the nomination of a party whose voters like Trump and dislike him?
Christie did not answer directly, choosing instead to hector his rivals for failing to discuss Trump sooner.
“We’re 17 minutes into this debate. And except for your little speech in the beginning, we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us,” Christie said. “The fifth guy who doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here – he’s the one, who, as you just put it, is way ahead in the polls.”
Christie characterized his debate-stage opponents as cowering in fear over the thought of crossing Trump, and likened them to characters in the Harry Potter novels who were unwilling to say the name of villain Voldemort.
“The fact is that when you go and you say the truth about somebody who is a dictator, a bully, who has taken shots at everybody – whether they’ve given him great service or not, over time – who dares to disagree with him, then I understand why these three are timid to say anything about it,” he declared. “But the fact of the matter is, the truth needs to be told!”
“Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history.”
Trump barely came up again in the debate, until the moderators asked Christie, around the halfway point, to respond to the former president’s recent comment that he would only be a dictator on “Day One” so he could seal the Southern border.
Christie called Trump’s comment “completely predictable.”
“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president, because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with them,” Christie said.
Christie again lambasted his colleagues, who in the first debate refused to rule out supporting Trump as the nominee if he were convicted of federal felonies. He argued that Trump’s high polling was a self-fulfilling prophecy made easier by Republican contenders not criticizing him.
“Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator? All you have to do is look at the history,” he said. “And that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim, empowers him. You want to know why those poll numbers are where they are? Because folks like these three guys on the stage make it seem like his conduct is acceptable.”
As if to hammer home his point immediately after Christie spoke, DeSantis, who has made subtle snipes at Trump’s age, refused to give a clear-cut answer on whether he sees Trump as physically or mentally unfit for the office.
“Father Time is undefeated,” DeSantis said. “The idea that we’re going to put someone up there that’s almost 80 and there’s going to be no effects from that – we all know that that’s not true. And so we have an opportunity to do a next generation of leaders and be able to move this country but we also need a president that can serve two terms.”
Christie interjected to press DeSantis on whether he believes Trump is fit or unfit for office, leading to a heated exchange.
“The question was very direct: Is he fit to be president or isn’t he? The rest of the speech is interesting, but completely nonresponsive!” Christie exclaimed. “And if we were in a courtroom, they’d strike the answer –”
DeSantis shot back, denying that and dismissing Christie’s focus on Trump as “your thing.” Much like a Floridian hounded by Christie on a debate stage almost eight years ago, DeSantis repeated himself, invoking “Father Time” again.
“Look, Father Time is undefeated,” he said. “I don’t know how he would score on a test but I know this: We have an opportunity to nominate someone and elect someone for two terms who’s going to be spitting nails on Day One, and for eight years, deliver you big results.”
Christie got the last word.
“This is the problem with my three colleagues: They’re afraid to offend,” he said. “If you’re afraid to offend Donald Trump, what are you going to do when you sit across from [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping], you sit across from the Ayatollah, you sit across from [Russian President Vladmir] Putin? You have to be willing to offend with the truth, and answer the question.”
Aside from Christie’s sermonic anti-Trump tirades, the debate was largely dominated by the closely fought contest for runner-up in a primary that remains Trump’s to lose.
Haley, who is also the former governor of South Carolina, has been rising in the polls in recent weeks, overtaking DeSantis in New Hampshire and nipping at his heels in Iowa. She has begun to lock up the support of major Republican donors and conservative grassroots groups like Americans for Prosperity.
That position naturally made her the target of attacks from both Ramaswamy and DeSantis, who was on the defensive against her in previous debates.
Haley appeared to be basking in the spotlight.
“I love all the attention, fellas,” she quipped at one point. “Thank you for that.”
Haley did her best to brush off claims from Ramaswamy and DeSantis that she would be beholden to Wall Street donors with more liberal views on immigration, the environment, and the U.S.-China relationship.
“Her donors – these Wall Street liberal donors – they make money in China,” DeSantis said. “They are not going to let her be tough on China and she will cave to the donors. She will not stand up for you.”
Haley replied with a reference to the collapse of DeSantis’ big-money support.
“He’s mad because those Wall Street donors used to support him and now they support me,” she said.
She also accused the governor of getting support from companies with ties to China, which DeSantis denied.
Haley even got an assist from Christie, who shares some of her hawkish views on foreign policy.
When Ramaswamy accused Haley of being unable to name the three Ukrainian provinces that Ukraine and Russia are fighting over, Christie made clear that he had had enough.
“He has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence, not her positions,” he said of Ramaswamy.
“Nikki and I disagree on some issues, but I’ll tell you this, I’ve known her for 12 years, which is longer than he’s even started to vote in the Republican primary,” he added, prompting laughs from the audience. “We disagree about some issues and we disagree about who should be president of the United States. Well, we don’t disagree on this: This is a smart accomplished woman. You should stop insulting her.”