‘I finally got a chance.’ Christie tackles Trump at GOP debate

TUSCALOOSA, ALA. — The three Republicans on the University of Alabama stage spent much of the opening phase of the GOP showdown on Wednesday jabbing, prodding and insulting each other when a fourth mostly neglected contender interjected.

“We’re 17 minutes into this debate,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told moderator Megyn Kelly. “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.”

The missing fifth contender he referenced, of course, was Donald Trump, whose boycott of the debates has turned them from must-see spectacles to soon-forgotten sideshows.

In what could have been his final debate, Christie again seemed to relish his role as the fiercest Trump critic in the GOP race. But he also used his platform to beg his rivals to join him in his criticism of the former president.

“There’s no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump,” he said of the man he dubbed a “dictator,” a “coward,” a “bully” and a “Voldemort — he who shall not be named” after the Harry Potter villain.

And when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley dodged chance after chance to criticize Trump, Christie concluded that they simply must be “afraid to offend” him.

‘No mystery’

Christie almost didn’t make the debate stage himself due to dismal poll numbers, and the boos from the audience after each of his anti-Trump barbs were a reminder of the uphill climb he faces just to stay in the mix.

His diminished chances have Christie in a role of a modern-day herald, or what he calls a “truth-teller,” rife with dire predictions of his party’s future. If Trump wins the GOP nod, he warns, it means certain defeat to President Joe Biden in November — and a more general lurch toward an ominous brand of pro-Trump authoritarianism.

“There’s no mystery to what he wants to do,” Christie said of Trump. “He started off his campaign by saying ‘I am your retribution.’ Eight years ago, he said, ‘I am your voice.’ This is an angry, bitter man who now has to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him.”

                        Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy speaks as former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. of Florida Ron DeSantis, and former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina listen during the fourth Republican presidential primary debate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

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Credit: NYT

If Trump was Christie’s top target, Vivek Ramaswamy was a close second. The biotech entrepreneur has tried to mimic Trump’s say-anything bombast and propensity for outright lies, including one on Wednesday that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an “inside job.”

With Haley resolved to ignore Ramaswamy’s torrent of insults — “It’s not worth my time to respond to him,” she shrugged at one point — Christie gladly stepped in.

“This is the fourth debate, the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America,” Christie fired at Ramaswamy, who responded in kind.

“Do everybody a favor, just walk yourself off that stage, enjoy a nice meal and get the hell out of this race.”

‘Owe me an apology’

For Christie, a former federal prosecutor known for his acid-tongued approach, the sharp tactics in Wednesday’s showdown were a crystal clear echo of his 2016 debate performances.

Win or lose, Christie wants to be remembered as the ultimate “truth-teller” — which also means recognizing his own deficits. Loathed by many in the GOP base, Christie is polling in the single-digits and has staked his long-shot bid on his standing in New Hampshire, where he has vigorously campaigned for months.

He reminded reporters after the debate that at this point eight years ago Ben Carson and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz were perched atop key polls. Of course, back then he wasn’t competing against a former president who holds the bulk of his party in thrall. Still, Christie insisted, the winnowing field has given him an opening.

“I finally got a chance,” he said of his performance. “Tonight the stage was smaller. It was more manageable. I told all you guys, there’s only one prosecutor on that stage. You saw me prosecute the case against each one of them tonight, and that’s exactly how I’ll prosecute the case against Joe Biden next November.”

Then, with a smirk: “That’s why I’m going to be president in ‘25. And some of you guys will owe me an apology.”

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