MILWAUKEE – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sold himself as the electable savior; a combative Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal sold himself as the true conservative; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee pitched himself as a blue-collar hero; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum tried to take a page from all three in a feisty Republican undercard debate on Tuesday.
Jindal used his time to take potshots at the other GOP governors and former governors seeking the presidential nod – accusing them of insufficient devotion to the conservative cause. In particular, he targeted Christie, who he said had “caved in to Obamacare” by accepting its Medicaid expansion and had not done enough to cut spending.
“I’ll give you a ribbon for participation, and a juice box,” Jindal said.
Christie, demoted to the lower-tier debate for the first time after failing to qualify for the main stage, consistently declined to take the bait and respond to Jindal’s taunts. Christie instead worked to refocus the debate on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic field and pitching his ability to win in a blue state.“She is the real adversary tonight and we better stay focused as Republicans on her,” Christie said.
Christie accused Democrats of wanting to raise taxes “70 to 80%” to pay for new programs and said Clinton would “move us to a single payer system” for health care. In fact, the former secretary of state released a health care plan broadly similar to the current Affordable Care Act in her 2008 presidential run, which relies on subsidies for private insurance, and has not proposed any kind of shift to single-payer.
The argument between Christie and Jindal highlighted a fundamental split in how Republicans view the general election. Christie argued that the highest priority had to be stopping Clinton, who would present a formidable opponent, so that the party needed a nominee with crossover appeal who could win blue state voters. Jindal argued that Clinton is weak – he said she was “gift-wrapping the election” to the GOP – which meant Republicans could propose more sweeping reforms without fear of political backlash.
“There’s not much difference between the two parties,” Jindal said. “The reason we keep losing nationally is we try to be cheaper version of the Democrats.”
Jindal didn’t just target Christie, he also lit into Huckabee, who has clashed with conservative groups like Club For Growth for raising spending and taxes at points as Arkansas governor.
Huckabee defended his record, though he was cut off at one point by the moderators when he tried to respond to Jindal. He used his time to defend government spending on Medicare and Social Security, which he distinguished from “welfare” spending elsewhere. Huckabee has criticized Christie for proposing changes to Social Security that include raising the retirement age to put it on sounder financial footing.
“Those are not entitlements and that’s not welfare and by gosh you paid for it and if the government screwed it up you shouldn’t have to pay the penalty,” Huckabee said.
Santorum tried to position himself as a hybrid of the others, pointing to his victories in Pennsylvania (and ignoring his double digit defeat in 2006) and his credentials with the right.
“Chris says we need someone who can win in a blue state; Bobby says we need a true conservative,” Santorum said. Then he paused and raised his arms.
Breaking from many of his rivals, Santorum defended the Export-Immigration Bank, which many conservatives see as a corporate giveaway, as a necessary measure to prop up U.S. companies.
“How can you come out and say ‘I’m for manufacturing’ when a majority of Republican congressmen and senators supported the Ex-Im bank because it means job for American manufacturers?” Santorum said.
While the focus was on the economy and fiscal issues, some national security topics came up. Christie threatened to take a harder line with China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
“I’ll fly Air Force One over those islands, they’ll know we mean business,” Christie said.
Huckabee, asked whether he would take in refugees from Syria, expressed doubt that many of the people claiming asylum were actually fleeing the country’s civil war and warned that they could be ISIS sleeper agents.
“Are we going to open our doors … give them a place to stay and a good sandwich and medical benefits?” Huckabee said. “I mean, my gosh.”
The event was the fourth “kids table” debate to feature lower polling candidates, but the organizer’s stricter requirements shook up the lineup. Both Christie and Huckabee were pushed off the main stage while Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore missed the cut entirely.