HAMPTON, New Hampshire — A woman in the crowd had a question, so a volunteer brought her the microphone.
“You were on fire last night!” she said.
Chris Christie greeted the “question” with a laugh. He wouldn’t “cool off,” he said, “until I beat Hillary Clinton.”
For the first time in a long time, the idea of Christie taking on Clinton didn’t seem utterly, completely insane. The New Jersey governor and onetime Republican darling was coming off his best day as a candidate of the 2016 cycle—filleting rival Marco Rubio on a debate stage.
He started his Sunday “searching for every vote that I can get in New Hampshire” in the stuffy cafeteria of Hampton Academy, a middle school, encircled by a few hundred spectators and a riser filled with TV cameras. It’s the kind of attention his presidential campaign hasn’t been used to. And he was milking it.
“You remember what Mike Tyson said, that great political philosopher, right?” Christie asked reporters at a later event. “‘Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the face.’”
Christie’s criticisms and sarcasm can sometimes come off as menacing, but on this particular occasion, he leveled it all with a smile. He was in a celebratory mood.
Just a few hours before, at the Republican debate at Saint Anselm College on Saturday night, Christie had expertly needled Rubio by calling him out for using the same exact talking point about President Barack Obama, over and over again.
In response to the criticism, Rubio repeated the talking point once more on the stage, to the delight of his tormenter.
“There it is,” Christie said, mockingly. “There it is, everybody.”
It was a critical moment where Rubio, who looked set to cruise to a strong finish in the Granite State, faltered and displayed weakness. Even among some of his supporters at events Sunday, the moment gave them pause—how could he handle the Big Problems America faces if he can’t take a ribbing from Chris Christie?
And there is no shortage of center-right Republican candidates who are desperate to cannibalize his support.
The race for the Republican nomination has been defined by the inability of establishment conservatives to exact the control over the process that they have enjoyed basically since after the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the last fringe figure to take hold of the party, in 1964.
The phenomenon of Donald Trump’s candidacy has lasted for seven months in large part because there exists no alternative, establishment-bred candidate strong enough to take him down alone.
In the few days before Tuesday’s primary here, where polls suggest Trump will win by a large margin, four candidates—Rubio, Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush—are vying to be the one the anti-Trump coalition rallies around. Rubio, who now polls at second place, seems the obvious choice, and that’s made him the natural target of Christie’s ire.
On Sunday, after bruising the Florida senator, Christie was cheerfully making the rounds to say I-told-you-so.
“The media and the chattering class is trying to stampede New Hampshire into handing this thing over to somebody who I have been saying for weeks has not been tested, has not been proven and, when the lights go on, I told you he wouldn’t be ready,” he said.
“The lights were bright last night, and all of America saw who is ready and who is not. I am, he’s not.”
Rubio’s response has been to minimize the damage by repeating the line even more than usual—he repeated it Sunday all across the state: in Londonderry, in Bedford, in Manchester. He didn’t say much, however, about Christie.
Rubio gave brief remarks prior to a Super Bowl watch party at an athletic training facility, standing on a short platform over a field of artificial turf.
“I’m going to keep saying it, over and over again—Barack Obama is trying to change America… I don’t understand how anyone can not see that,” Rubio said, in a speech peppered with football jokes and characterized by its informality.
Christie’s town hall, his preferred medium for communication, couldn’t have been any more different. They have historically been staged like movie sets: he is professionally lit by bright lights, which his campaign rents and stands strategically around the room. Sedan-sized American flags and “Telling It Like It Is!” signs serve as backdrops. The crowd is seated in-the-round, so that there is no angle at which he can be photographed without warm bodies filling the frame.
He’s held hundreds of these events, at home in New Jersey and, since the spring, here in New Hampshire, his second home (Sunday was his 71st day of campaigning in the state). But as his campaign for the Republican nomination has lagged, the town halls have mostly been missing their most essential component: a star.
The verbal clobbering of Rubio seemed to change that. And even voters inclined to back the Florida senator were reporting that they were having second thoughts.
“I like him. But I think last night sent us into a different direction in terms of his maturity and his ability to handle the big problems,” said Steve Wesby, who attended Rubio’s Super Bowl watch party. “Everybody makes mistakes, we understand that, but… I’m disappointed that someone who is running for the presidency of the United States, one of the most important jobs in the world, would have a day where he kept digging a hole for himself.”
Monica Mahoney said the debate moment jumped out at her and her husband immediately as they watched it. “When he did it the second time, we were like, well, that wasn’t great. But when he did it a third time, we were like, ‘Stop! Stop saying that! Don’t say it again!’”
Mahoney said she’s supporting Rubio no matter what, but she worries the debate might have slowed Rubio’s momentum going into primary day. “I think that for those that are undecided it might have turned them off a little bit.”
Christie had gotten up early for the Sunday shows, where he was a major talking point, and he bragged that he was running on just four hours of sleep. “Let me say this to ya, for all the people with cameras back there,” he said, looking toward the present media. “Anything could happen!”
So much has been true for this election on a whole. But so far, not much has happened that’s been good for Christie.
Despite focusing on this state more than any other, and receiving the endorsements of over 100 officials and leaders here as well as the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader, Christie polls at just 5 percent on average, behind every single candidate except for Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson.
Rubio, conversely, has been buoyed by his unexpectedly close third-place finish in Iowa—at least until Saturday night’s debate debacle.
He mixed his hope-and-change stump speech with a moment of pessimism, warning that generational damage could be done if voters didn’t make the right choice come Election Day.
For whatever his debate performance might have cost him politically, he seemed relaxed on Sunday, cracking jokes about the Super Bowl and his kids.
Rubio left an event to find his children had made two snowmen—“Look, they’re from Miami. Someone helped them”—and praised their depiction of abs on one of them. He pledged to ban disco music—a low point of the ’70s, he said—and give Tom Brady a spot in his cabinet if elected president.
“The Dolphins haven’t played in [the Super Bowl] since 1984, ’85. I guess they were in it in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but that’s a movie,” Rubio said. “And in the movie the guy misses the kick… Even in the movie we lose the Super Bowl!”
His supporters echoed his speech, arguing that if it was worth saying, it was worth saying repeatedly.
“They see it as a consistent message that they want to hear,” spun State Sen. Regina Birdsell, a Rubio supporter, in Londonderry.
Courtney Kaufman is a senior at Mamaroneck High School in New York, where the entire AP Government and Politics class was participating in the New Hampshire primary as part of the course load. Of her 115 classmates, only 21 chose to support a Republican candidate—all of them for Rubio.
"Everyone else’s goal in that debate was to take down Marco Rubio… he believes that, that’s why he said it more than once,” she told The Daily Beast. “I was reading online, he’s going to say it again. If that’s what he believes, why shouldn’t he say it again?”
Nevertheless, at Shooter’s Bar in Exeter on Sunday afternoon, Christie was doing what he could to keep his moment alive.
“The debate last night should show experience matters,” he said. “This is not a game, everybody. This is not just something where a guy gives a nice speech and looks good in a suit, so let’s make him president of the United States. The lights go on, they’re very bright and they’re very hot. And they get brighter and hotter the closer you get to the presidency.”
—with additional reporting by Patricia Murphy