At times he glanced around the stage with a look on his face that suggested he had just woken up and was not sure where he was or how he had gotten there.
Chris Christie did not feel at home among the lowest-tier Republican candidates at the “undercard” (or “kiddie table” or “cocktail hour”) debate on Tuesday night, and it showed.
It showed in his visible bewilderment and in his resolute unwillingness to break down and react when confronted by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was intent on using every opportunity to attack Christie’s record in New Jersey, where he’s been governor since 2009.
Jindal attacked Christie’s budgets and the size of his government. When Christie repeatedly refused to take the bait and respond, Jindal condescendingly told him, “Chris, I’ll give you a ribbon for participation and a juice box, but in the real world it’s about results. It’s about actually cutting government spending, not just talking about cutting government spending.”
Christie looked confused. Jindal, for some reason, wanted to attack him, Christie said—but he knew what was really important: Hillary Clinton.
“If you think Mike Huckabee won’t be the kind of president who will cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait ’til you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country and how she will drown us in debt,” Christie said, to cheers.
At another point, Christie said, “Hillary Clinton is running so far left to try to catch up to her socialist opponent, Bernie Sanders, it’s hard to even see her anymore.”
The effect was likely precisely what Christie was going for: He looked like he was already the nominee, while Jindal looked like an amateur.
The other candidates on the stage—Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—barely registered.
Santorum stuttered and said some things about welfare. Huckabee explained why he won’t help Syrian refugees and made an awkward joke about how, when he hears the name Janet Yellen, he thinks about his wife, whose name is Janet, because she often yells.
Tuesday night’s undercard debate was unlike any other because it is the first to feature candidates—Christie and Huckabee—who had previously been in prime time but whose low poll numbers in recent weeks knocked them down a peg.
But rather than be an embarrassment to Christie’s campaign or the final nail in his coffin, in the end it presented an opportunity for him on the smaller stage, with more speaking time, to stand out.