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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Chris Christie did not disappoint.
The New Jersey governor had made it quite clear that when he stepped on the debate stage Saturday night here, three days before the New Hampshire primary, he would be looking to draw a very sharp contrast between himself and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
From the jump, Christie went after Rubio like an attack dog, tearing into the 44-year-old first-term senator and mocking his youth and inexperience. And Rubio, who increasingly has gathered momentum after a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses last week, was put on the defensive in a way that he has not been so far in this campaign.
Christie, who is in his second term as governor, needs very badly to do well in the voting on Tuesday, but is struggling to gain traction in the polls. He is bunched together with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rubio behind businessman Donald Trump, and Rubio has been rising in the polls.
Christie began his critique of Rubio by saying that senators wake up thinking about what speech they will give that day or what kind of legislation they will sponsor. A governor, Christie said, wakes up thinking about “What kind of problem do I need to solve?”
Turning to Rubio, Christie addressed him directly. “You have not been involved in a consequential decision where you have had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t,” Christie said.
Christie then aggressively made the argument that a vote for Rubio is an unwise gamble on an untested, inexperienced politician, and compared him to President Obama, who was also a first-term senator in 2008 when he was elected president.
“What we need to do is not to have the same mistake we made eight years ago,” Christie said. “I like Marco Rubio, and he’s smart person and a good guy. But he simply does not have the experience to be president of the United States.”
Rubio tried to counter by going after Christie’s fiscal record in New Jersey.
“I think the experience is not just what you did, but how it worked out. Under Chris Christie’s governorship of New Jersey, they have been downgraded nine times in their credit rating,” Rubio said.
Then Rubio tried to turn his attention and his argument away from his confrontation with Christie, and criticized Obama, talking in generalizations about how Obama is trying to change the country to make it more “like the rest of the world.”
It was an awkward transition, and one that Christie swiftly pointed out.
“You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. That is what Washington, D.C., does: the drive-by shot at the beginning, with incorrect and incomplete information, and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him,” Christie said, as the debate audience began to roar.
“See, Marco, the thing is this: When you’re president of the United States, when you are a governor of a state, the memorized 30-second speech, where you talk about how great America is at the end of it, doesn’t solve one problem, for one person,” Christie said.
Rubio was on his heels, and scrambled to respond, saying that Christie had not wanted to return to New Jersey to deal with a blizzard earlier this month. “They had to shame you into going back,” Rubio said. It came off as a weak retort that indicated he was not prepared for the degree to which Christie was in his face.
But the clearest indication that Rubio was rattled was that he once again repeated his canned line about Obama. “This notion that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he is doing is just not true,” Rubio said. It was now a non sequitur, and Christie interjected.
“There it is, there it is,” Christie said.
Rubio and Christie went back and forth for a few more moments, with Christie getting in one more shot.
“You’ve never been responsible for anything in your entire life,” he said to Rubio. And as Rubio continued to say that Christie had not wanted to return to New Jersey at the time of the storm, Christie stopped him.
“Wait a second, is that one of the skills you get as a United States senator: ESP, also?”
Christie continued throughout the debate to use any opportunity to go after Rubio. Later, he brought up a comment Rubio had made about the 2013 immigration reform bill more than 10 minutes earlier.
“He acted as if he was somehow disembodied from the bill,” Christie said of Rubio. “It was his idea. … When you’re governor, you have to take responsibility for these things.”
Rubio, who more than any other presidential candidate this cycle has jumped in and inserted himself to gain time in debates any time his name has been mentioned, stayed silent as Christie launched this critique. He clearly did not want any part of Christie.