If you were just listening to Chris Christie’s answers Tuesday night, you might have thought he was debating Hillary Clinton. The Republican governor of New Jersey used his demotion to the undercard debate in Milwaukee to focus not on the other three low-polling Republicans on stage but instead on the likely Democratic nominee.
Christie landed some good shots on the former secretary of state, hitting his regular talking points about fixing entitlements and supporting law enforcement, and even discussed how he might deal with China as president.
At almost every opportunity, Christie tied his critique of the Obama administration to Clinton—the Veterans Affairs hospital scandal, growing income inequality, and foreign policy failures.
"Remember why we're in the position we're in with China," Christie said in response to a question about the Asian giant's cyberwarfare. "Because of an absolutely weak and feckless foreign policy that was engineered by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."
Asked about the tangible benefits Democrats often say they want to deliver, like free health care and free education, Christie dismissed the promises made at the first Democratic debate by Clinton and her opponents.
“Let me ask the folks at home one very simple question: Do you want to give Washington more control over your life?” he said. “Is Washington doing that good of a job for you right now? The fact is, if you listen to Hillary Clinton, she’s made it very clear. She believes she can make decisions for you better than you can make them for yourself. She believes that Washington, D.C., should pick the winners and losers in our economy and in our life.”
If Christie was focused on Clinton, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal aimed his sights on Christie. Jindal made several efforts to draw Christie into arguments about spending cuts, but the New Jersey Republican didn’t bite at the shots at his record. In fact, after Jindal brought up some similar criticisms of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s spending record, Christie sounded almost statesman-like in his unwillingness to go after his GOP rivals.
“If you think Mike Huckabee won’t be the kind of president to cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait until you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country and how she will drown us in debt. She is the real adversary tonight, and we better stay focused, as Republicans, on her,” Christie said. “Hillary Clinton’s coming for your wallet, everybody. Don’t worry about Huckabee or Jindal. Worry about her.”
By not engaging with Jindal or going after his fellow Republicans, Christie failed to produce the fireworks of some of his previous debate performances. There were no shouting matches with Rand Paul over NSA surveillance or Mike Huckabee over entitlements. And it wasn’t the sort of breakout performance Carly Fiorina achieved at the first undercard debate in August, which vaulted her into the first tier thereafter.
But as Jeb Bush’s campaign continues to struggle, Christie appears to have an opening with many in the Republican donor class looking for a center-right establishment horse. Christie has improved his favorability numbers among Republican primary voters, and a video of Christie giving an emotional appeal for society to take better care of drug addicts has received nearly 8 million views on Facebook. While not being on the main debate stage has humbled the once-declared GOP frontrunner, Christie’s appearance in Tuesday’s undercard allowed him to demonstrate what kind of general-election candidate he could make. New Hampshire Republicans and big-money donors may very well have taken note.