Christie, Kasich Shine in Critical GOP Debate
By Joe Garofoli
Two Republican governors whose White House dreams hinge on Tuesday's New Hampshire primary were the biggest winners at Saturday's GOP debate, while first-term Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has been surging in recent polls, saw his hopes damaged when he was exposed as being overly scripted and inexperienced.
While Donald Trump returned to the debate stage after dodging the final Iowa one, his opponents largely avoided engaging him. Trump's toughest opponent was the audience, which booed him several times -- and he ripped right back.
A confident Ohio Gov. John Kasich stood above his rivals by sticking to a positive, inclusive message, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- like Kasich lagging in the polls and nearly out of cash -- scored big by lampooning Rubio's propensity to robotically repeat talking points.
Christie pounds Rubio
Slightly muting his usual bluster, Christie called out Rubio -- a first-term senator -- for not being "involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven't." Christie then pounded Rubio for repeating by rote a "memorized, 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him."
Moments later, when Rubio said President Obama "is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world" and repeated the phrase, "this notion that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing is just not true," that he had said seconds earlier, Christie pounced.
"There it is. There it is. The memorized 25-second speech," Christie said. "There it is, everybody."
On a major issue where Rubio briefly showed leadership during his four-year Senate career -- a bipartisan immigration plan that included a pathway to citizenship -- Christie said Rubio didn't fight to save the measure when the politics turned against him.
"A leader must fight for what they believe in," Christie said. "Not handicap it and say, well maybe since I can't win this one, I'll run."
Christie had little to lose by going after Rubio hard in Manchester. The governor is one of several candidates who will probably be out of the race if they don't finish in the top three Tuesday.
Funders -- both large and small -- will close their wallets if a candidate hasn't either won or surged in the polls after New Hampshire. And without money -- the lifeblood of any political campaign -- it will be time for some to go back to their day jobs -- or become a contributor on Fox News.
Joining Christie on the life-support list are former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who was the only candidate not invited to Saturday's debate, even though she's polling above retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in the latest Real Clear Politics average of major polls in New Hampshire. That bar is low: Fiorina is pulling only 3.9 percent there.
Christie confronted his presidential mortality recently, telling the Washington Post that "I've got to beat Jeb and Kasich here, and if I don't beat Jeb and Kasich here, I have to think long and hard about whether I go forward or not."
That's because Christie's campaign has $1.1. million cash on hand, the least of any active candidate. He has made 70 visits to New Hampshire since the start of 2015 -- more than any other GOP hopeful according to WMUR, a New Hampshire TV station. But even though voters see a lot of Christie, they don't particularly like him; he's only pulling 4.9 percent in the state, good for sixth place.
Kasich, who has made 68 trips to New Hampshire and has $2.5 million in the bank, also may be headed back to his day job in Columbus, Ohio, if he doesn't place high Tuesday. Currently, he's tied with Cruz for third in New Hampshire, pulling 12 percent there according to RealClear.
Kasich stood above the field Saturday by being the only candidate to talk repeatedly about bringing people together. Within the first 100 days of his administration, Kasich promised to bring a bipartisan immigration plan to Congress that included a pathway to legal status, not citizenship, in sticking with the GOP guardrails on the issue. He talked about reaching out "to people who live in the shadows. I believe we need to help the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the working poor."
Asked how how he would, as president, bridge the divide between law enforcement and families who have been the victims of excessive force, Kasich sought a middle ground where his rivals didn't.
"We love the police, but we've got to be responsible to the people in the community," Kasich said. "We have to do all of that."
That was a far more inclusive answer than the one given by Trump, who firmly sided with law enforcement.
"I have to say that the police are absolutely mistreated and misunderstood," Trump said.
Even though Trump is leading the polls in New Hampshire by a wide margin, his opponents barely scraped him Saturday, allowing the developer and reality TV star to remain above the fray.
Audience boos Trump
Instead, Trump tangled with the audience, which booed him several times. When they jeered him as he defended the value of eminent domain in building infrastructure, he accused the audience of being full of Republican donors.
"The reason they're not loving me is, I don't want their money," Trump said. He was also booed, in what may be a debate first, during his closing statement, when he began by accusing Iowa caucus winner Sen. Ted Cruz of "getting" Carson's votes in Iowa by spreading false information that Carson was suspending his campaign. Early in the debate, Cruz apologized to Carson but blamed CNN for not promptly clearing up a report that Carson had left the race. The nonpartisan factchecking site Politifact rated Cruz's explanation as "false."
The audience didn't have a problem with Trump's response to a question about whether waterboarding was torture. Trump said the practice was necessary as a response to the savage beheadings that the Islamic State group was conducting on Western captives.
"I would bring back waterboarding," Trump said, "and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."
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