No debate so far has reshaped the election like the one in New Hampshire on Saturday night. And nothing the rest of the night equaled the first 10 minutes.
Chris Christie made a full-frontal attack on Marco Rubio. The New Jersey governor had been needling the freshman senator from Florida, ridiculing him as a fourth-grader looking for his new desk on the Senate floor and calling him the “boy in the bubble.” No one would have been surprised had Christie gone too far, but he didn’t. Governors do things, senators talk about doing things at hearings and occasionally vote on them. Although Rubio, as Christie pointed out, hasn’t even done much voting.
“You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you have had to be held accountable,” Christie scolded him.
Rubio fired back by accusing Christie of refusing to leave the campaign trail to go do some governing in his home state after it was walloped by a snowstorm two weeks ago. He kept intoning this point as if it were a joke that, if repeated enough times, would at last get a laugh. When that didn’t work, he defaulted to a tic that Christie has criticized: robotically reciting “the memorized 25-second speech.”
Shockingly, the candidate who came in third in Iowa and was supposed to embody the hopes of the establishment Republicans against Donald Trump and Ted Cruz never recovered. He tripled down, inserting his same swipes at President Barack Obama as if he were Siri dealing out stock replies regardless of the question.
It was a mistake — if not at the Rick Perry “oops” level, certainly like Dan Quayle who was warned not to compare himself to John Kennedy but did anyway.
This doesn’t mean Christie won the night. With Jeb Bush and John Kasich, he was part of a three-governor tag team that combined to pop the Rubio balloon, including hammering home that unlike them, he doesn’t support exceptions to abortion for rape and incest. The debate gave Jeb back his exclamation point, Christie a claim on his prosecutor chops, and Kasich, often overlooked at the edge of the stage, a claim to the best performance of his campaign.
The consensus afterward was that Trump prevailed. If so, and if he stays at 30 percent, it’s because, chastened by his second-place finish in Iowa, he didn’t behave quite as badly as in past debates.
If you wondered how the biggest, greatest, smartest winner of all times would bounce back from defeat, look no further than Trump’s interplay with Bush. His pout got poutier, his syntax, sentences and verbiage even more fractured, his empty answers emptier.
Bush’s memorable moment came early and demonstrated the second wind he is showing to growing crowds in New Hampshire: a more concise, determined campaigner. The former Florida governor told a story about how Trump used eminent domain to try to evict an old lady from her house in Atlantic City so that he could build a parking lot for limousines at his casino. Knowing he’d been hit and without a good answer, Trump threw what his archrival Sen. Ted Cruz has aptly dubbed a “Trumpertantrum.”
“Let me talk. Quiet,” he commanded Bush. He then put his finger to his lips, like a teacher shushing a kindergartner.
It was a glimpse of Bush at his best and Trump, well, being Trump. When it comes to repetition, Trump makes Rubio look like a piker. What’s a conservative, he was asked. One who conserves, he answered, citing wealth among the things a conservative conserves. No talk of limited government or balanced budgets.
He toned down the Muslim-bashing to “We have to have a temporary something because there’s something going on that’s not good.” When the audience booed, he claimed that it had been infiltrated by the donor class, which dislikes him because he doesn’t want fat-cat money.
There was some red meat for Trump fans, too: He’s so for the police that he doesn’t acknowledge the shameful camera- captured killings of unarmed blacks. America’s external enemies should know that he will subject them to some vague thing that’s “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding. And he will, of course, make deals. How? “A good dealmaker will make great deals.” And then what? He will “Grab ‘em, hug ‘em, kiss ‘em.”
But to give credit where it’s due, Trump did let up on attacking his rivals. Who says a man can’t grow? It turns out, however, that Cruz would have been better off had Trump paid more attention to him. The Texas senator is a man who can live without a friend but needs an enemy. He never looked more uncomfortable than when he tried to join the family of man with the genuinely sad tale of his stepsister’s drug and alcohol abuse in answer to a question about the opioid epidemic. I couldn’t see, but I suspect every eye in the house remained dry. He seems more genuine when the subject is carpet-bombing.
There appeared to be an unspoken pact among the governors to expose the empty suit on the stage. The benefit may not go to Christie, who made the tackles: The linebacker, who arrived to this campaign already badly roughed up, doesn’t win the Heisman Trophy. As for Bush, while he is drawing better crowds and Mom’s visit raised his energy level, it may just be too late.
That leaves Kasich: He may well be the biggest beneficiary as his message found a hole to run through. He can do for America what he’s done for Ohio, where he won re-election in 2014 with 65 percent of the vote.
His optimism and sunny disposition could be liabilities to a fed-up electorate looking to have its anger mirrored. But his indomitability came through. He conveyed the steely determination it took to bring together Ohio’s disparate factions to turn a $2 billion deficit into an $8 billion surplus, to lower unemployment to 4.7 percent from 9.2 percent, and to rebuild the state’s rainy day fund to $2 billion from just 89 cents.
He’s too smart to repeat the old saw that as Ohio, so goes the country, but maybe New Hampshire’s voters will show Tuesday that they get the point anyway.