If you’re Jeb Bush, one of the current challenges is knowing who to go after first. Do you criticize Donald Trump, since he’s the Republican frontrunner? Or maybe Ted Cruz, since he’s well positioned to be the non-Trump candidate? Or perhaps Marco Rubio, since he appeals to similar intra-party constituencies?
With all of these choices, it mattered quite a bit yesterday when the former Florida governor turned his attention to … Chris Christie?
For the first time in the 2016 campaign, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) set his sights directly on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), criticizing Christie’s economic record in an interview with The Huffington Post on Tuesday.Asked to explain to New Hampshire primary voters how he’s different from the New Jersey governor, Bush noted that Christie is “a great guy” and a friend before he panned New Jersey’s economy.
As the Huffington Post reported, Bush seemed to have memorized his talking points related to the Garden State. “I would say it’s the record of accomplishment – my record in Florida compared to his,” he said in reference to Christie. “When people look at it, I’m a reform-minded conservative that got to do big things. He didn’t. He hasn’t. We were AAA bond rated. He’s had credit downgrades. We led the nation in job growth. New Jersey hasn’t done as well.”
This has the benefit of being largely true. Florida’s economy during Bush’s tenure was built largely on a housing bubble – Jeb’s record of success evaporated when the state’s housing market collapsed – but his assessment of New Jersey under Christie’s leadership is accurate. Indeed, Bush was understating the case.
But in the larger context, the jab was probably less important than the motivation behind it. For months, Christie, burdened by scandals and unpopularity, was treated as an afterthought in the race for the Republican nomination. The governor’s rivals didn’t criticize him because they didn’t see much of a point: Christie wasn’t relevant enough to attack.
In August, a super PAC that was created for the sole purpose of stopping Christie’s presidential campaign announced it was pulling the plug on the operation – because Christie had effectively already been stopped.
But the winds have shifted direction a bit, prompting the New Jersey Republican’s rivals to reevaluate Christie’s significance.
In New Hampshire polling, for example, the governor is now a credible contender, receiving the Union-Leader’s endorsement and reaching double-digit support in several recent statewide polls. In fact, since Thanksgiving, nearly every publicly released New Hampshire poll has shown Christie surpassing Bush.
In national polling, most of the surveys conducted since the last Republican debate show Christie either leading or tied with Bush as they compete in the same mainstream GOP “lane.”
And it’s not just Bush. Christie has been eager to undermine Marco Rubio’s standing, especially in New Hampshire, where both Republicans believe they’re on track for top three, perhaps even top two, finishes. With this in mind, Politico had an interesting take on them this morning.
NJ Gov. Chris Christie has campaigned for president of New Hampshire, spent far more of his time there than Rubio, and is essentially tied with the Florida senator. So Christie’s laying into Rubio and Rubio’s ignoring him. But at a certain point, Rubio might have to hit back. Christie figures Rubio voters are soft and gettable.“The story that’s unwritten is that Rubio/Cruz is a wasted strategy. The real fight that will dominate January is Christie/Rubio. One of them will be mortally wounded after NH,” one unaffiliated Washington Republican said via email. “The most immediate threat to [Rubio’s] getting the nomination right now is Christie… If Christie finishes ahead of Rubio in the Granite state, it is a near mortal wound (and conversely, if Rubio ahead of Christie, it IS a mortal wound). Cruz is a problem later … but right now Christie is an immediate threat (and holds the bonus of crossover votes plus $). If Rubio finishes fourth in New Hampshire “a very panicked establishment and donor set will throw their weight in that direction – especially if Cruz finishes 1st and IA and Trump 2nd or 3rd.”
All of this sounds about right to me. Christie’s newfound relevance is changing the nature of the Republican race in ways few would have predicted over the summer.
Postscript: Have you noticed the asymmetry surrounding the New Hampshire primary? Jeb is focused on Christie, Christie is focused on Rubio, and Rubio is focused on Cruz. The only candidates focused on Trump, who’s winning, are Sanders and Clinton.