Twenty-four hours before Chris Christie dropped out of the presidential race, I sat with the New Jersey governor on his campaign bus and asked him whether he planned to take on Donald Trump the way he went after Marco Rubio.
Three days earlier, Christie had defenestrated Rubio on live national television in the final debate before New Hampshire voters went to the polls. In that same debate, Jeb Bush tangled with Trump — but Christie found the former Florida governor’s jabs wanting.
He said on “Morning Joe” afterward that Bush “had a chance to take on Donald Trump on Saturday night, and I don’t think really effectively delivered that punch.”
Could you? I asked Christie.
“Of course I could,” the New Jersey governor responded, mildly annoyed at even being asked about the limits of his sparring talents.
So why hadn’t he?
“I do so at a time and place of my choosing. There’s no need for me to do that now,” Christie said.
Chris Christie and Donald Trump talk during a break at a Republican presidential debate in October. (Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP)
The next day, Christie dropped out. And the Republican Party said goodbye to the only presidential candidate with the combination of quick wit, charisma and gravitas necessary to stand up to Trump one on one.
Many in the GOP now lament the missed opportunity. Nobody knows if a Christie vs. Trump showdown in a debate or other setting would have made enough of a difference to change the race. But just look at how dramatically Christie altered the Republican primary in a matter of mere minutes when he successfully goaded Rubio into robot mode. Who knows how Trump would have responded to Christie?
“It could have been very effective,” said one high-level adviser to a presidential candidate who is no longer in the race. “Trump talks a big game but often dials back in debates.”
Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi, said, “Christie needed to be Christie, particularly with Trump.”
“Many of us are surprised Christie never went after Trump,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In fact, Christie was urged for weeks to use his prosecutorial skills — honed for six years as a U.S. attorney in New Jersey — to make the case against Trump. By the time we talked, he was notably defensive about it.
“It’s ironic to me,” he said. “For a good part of my career, I got criticized for taking too many people on. Now those same people are saying I didn’t take on Donald Trump enough.
“Listen, there were plenty of people shooting at Donald over the course of this time, and I wanted to focus on — when the campaign came into real focus — who I had to take on,” Christie said. “The guy I needed to take on in New Hampshire was Marco Rubio.”
In other words, Rubio was ascending to be the Trump alternative, a spot Christie wanted for himself. With his kneecapping of Rubio, Christie eliminated the Florida senator from the running in New Hampshire, although Rubio’s unimpressive finish there didn’t improve Christie’s standing in the race. And as a result, the non-Trump lane has remained muddled between Rubio and Ted Cruz, while Trump has won three consecutive states with less than 50 percent.
I spoke with three different close advisers to Christie this week about their internal deliberations inside the campaign. Unlike any other candidate, Christie had knockout punching power, so why didn’t he go straight for the king of the hill rather than trying to outlast the other Trump alternatives?
“We kept hearing that all along,” said one Christie adviser. “It was coming from people who didn’t have our best interest at heart. We did what we thought was in our best interest, to get to a one-on-one with Trump.
“I don’t know if what happened to Marco would have happened to Trump,” he added.
Even if Christie could have made an impact, his counselors said, they weren’t sure it would have helped them.
“Is it a confrontation for confrontation’s sake? Was that going to accrue to our benefit or to someone else’s benefit?” the adviser asked.
Another top Christie adviser said, “A lot of times we were playing a short-term game. We were playing to get into the next debate.
“Nobody wants to be a suicide bomber,” this adviser said. “Then you’ve decided you’re part of a cause and not a candidacy.”
Now some in New Jersey are already speculating that Christie could endorse Trump in order to curry favor with the GOP frontrunner in the hope of being named attorney general.
Christie has known Trump for 13 years. “We’ve always gotten along. Been friends for 13 years. I went to his wedding, the third one,” Christie told me over the summer.
A close Christie confidant, asked via text message Wednesday about the possibility of the governor endorsing Trump, did not rule it out.
“You never know,” he wrote back.