GOP establishment race gets ugly

Updated

ROCHESTER, New Hampshire – Chris Christie, who has been surging in the so-called establishment lane of the GOP presidential race ahead of New Hampshire’s critical first-in-the-nation primary, was feeling good Tuesday night about suddenly being the top target of his Republican rivals.

“They’re starting to rant and criticize me. That means we’re winning,” he told a crowd of more than 200 at a Foreign Legion post here, before dishing out his own attacks.

With just five weeks to go before voters head to the polls, there’s a pileup of candidates hoping to solidify support from voters looking for an alternative to Donald Trump, who is currently sitting on top of polls in the Granite State. And things are getting ugly as the supposedly more restrained candidates try to claw their way above their rivals, with everything from age to footwear now fair game.

Super PACs supporting Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have all started running ads in New Hampshire attacking Christie – and each other. “One high-tax, Common Core, liberal-energy loving, Obamacare-Medicaid-expanding president is enough,” an ad from Rubio’s Conservative Solutions Super PAC says of Christie.

Bush on Tuesday criticized the New Jersey governor’s record. “My record is one that’s conservative, applying conservative principles, and moving the needle in the right direction. I don’t think he can make that same claim. We’re AAA bond rated, he had credit downgrades,” Bush told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt as he ticked through a list of other ways he said he record was superior.

RELATED: The GOP establishment lane is crowded– and flawed

Christie’s campaign on Wednesday responded to the attacks with its own new TV ad. “Marco Rubio is attacking Gov. Chris Christie,” a narrator reads, before turning to Christie on the stump. “Do not be fooled: Any significant division within the Republican Party leads to the same awful result – Hillary Rodham Clinton in January of 2017 taking the oath of office.”

Christie emphasized the message in Rochester, saying it is “destructive” and “desperate” for his opponents to attack him when the Republican Party needs to unite to stop Clinton.

Still, he weaved jabs at Rubio, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and others into his stump speech, and did not hesitate to go offense when speaking to reporters after the event.

It barely took a mention of Bush’s name before Christie unloaded on the former Florida governor. “Jeb had a Republican legislature his entire time in Florida. He had a free ride. And he  had a free ride during some of the greatest economic times this country has ever seen in the late 90’s and early 2000s,” Christie told MSNBC. “But he wouldn’t know the first thing to do if he was in New Jersey for a week and dealt with a Democratic legislature, hostile interest groups, huge unions – he didn’t have to deal with any of that in Florida.”

“So, you know, being prepared for the White House? He’s not. He’s just not. Not by dint of his service in Florida. So Jeb can say whatever he wants to say,” Christie added.

Bush spokesperson Tim Miller responded by telling MSNBC, “Chris Christie sure has a lot of excuses for his big government record in New Jersey.”

During Christie’s lengthy remarks, he also called Rubio “young” and “inexperienced.” Invoking President Obama, he said, “The only thing worse than running for president and losing is running for president and winning when you’re not ready.” He added that the Senate is like “school” where senators are instructed on what to do every day, saying that experience does not prepare candidates to be president. 

Rubio spokesperson Alex Conant responded by turning the invocation of Obama back on Christie. “Barack Obama was a failed president because he had bad ideas – not because he served in the Senate. President Obama now has 7 years of executive experience and he’s still making terrible decisions,” he said in an email to MSNBC. “Gov. Christie’s experience includes advocating for President Obama’s policies on common core and gun control.”

On Monday, Christie told the Washington Post that Rubio wants to “slime his way to the White House” with negative ads.

Even as he called for an end to Republican-on-Republican violence, the New Jersey governor defended taking the swings at his rivals by saying that he would only hit them if they hit him first – and all of the candidates had in recent days.

“Just remember one thing. Five months ago, Jeb Bush said nothing about me. Marco Rubio said nothing about me. John Kasich said nothing about me. Donald Trump said nothing about me,” he said.

It’s just the latest back-and-forth in what has been a particularly rancorous few weeks for Republican candidates appealing to so-called establishment voters. Late last month, the Kasich campaign released a video mocking Bush by comparing him to Betamax, the obsolete technology.  

RELATED: Chris Christie suddenly worthy of rivals’ attacks

Tensions are so high that Marco Rubio’s choice of footwear has even become an issue. While campaigning in New Hampshire earlier this week, the Florida senator was spotted wearing some fashionable black boots with a sizable heel.

“I’m here in Whoopi Goldberg’s office trying to choose some shoes. We’ve seen Rubio has those cute new boots and I don’t want to be outdone,” = Sen. Rand Paul said in a video tweeted by his campaign.

Bush, whose super PAC has been running harsh ads attacking his fellow Floridian, joked to MSNBC’s Hunt Wednesday morning while showing off his new snow boots. “They’re not high heeled,” he said.  

Trump remains dominant in New Hampshire, where he held a rally Tuesday night, and even some supporters of the other candidates acknowledge second place may be the best their candidate can hope for. Ironically, Trump’s lane of the primary – which includes just him and Cruz  for now – has been marked by civility and bonhomie, though that may have started to change in the last 24 hours as they two campaigns exchange some warning shots. 

The establishment candidates will need to unite the non-Trump vote, which looks increasingly difficult, as NBC’s First Read notes. Large portions of the GOP electorate say they could not see themselves supporting Christie (50%), Bush (53%), Kasih (53%) and Rubio (29%) – and those numbers are from a December NBC poll before the race turned decidedly more ugly.

This story has been updated with Conant’s statement

Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio

GOP establishment race gets ugly

Updated