For the first GOP presidential nomination debate, I tweeted my assessment of the candidates’ performance from strongest to weakest. I came to this conclusion by judging which candidates best helped themselves. Because each candidate faces different challenges, what each must do to raise his profile varies. My assessment of the best performers and my rationale follows:
9th Place: Governor Chris Christie
Governor Chris Christie’s chances for winning the Republican nomination remain incredibly slim. Christie’s appeal to Republicans wanting a candidate with a brusque, unapologetically conservative executive is undermined by candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Not known for his religiosity, Christie cannot court Evangelical Christian voters as effectively as some of his rivals. Lacking specific expertise on foreign policy that contenders like Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Jeb Bush demonstrate effectively, Christie struggles to stand out from the foreign policy hawks in the party.
So, for Chris Christie to have performed better in the debate, he would have had to portrayed himself as a unifying figure. He needed to portray himself as someone who can earn the support of some of the many different stripes of conservative voters. He failed.
When asked to contrast his remedy for entitlement reform with Governor Mike Huckabee’s, Huckabee focused the majority of his remarks on protecting the people receiving social security money after being forced into an imperfect system. Christie dismissively dispatched with Huckabee’s ideas, calling them simply “wrong.” In this exchange, Christie allows himself to be painted as someone who will dispassionately cut services for millions of Americans who depend on them, compared to someone who will work diligently to craft an alternative plan that can save social security. For the millions of Republican voters at or nearing retirement age, a choice between the two men is clear. After the Republican defeat in 2012, Christie should also wonder if he comes across as someone who “cares about people like me”–the defining factor in Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama.
Secondly, Christie sparred pointedly with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul over government surveillance. The bad blood between the two men has been boiling for years. It spilled over, hot, in their exchange that had all the cringe-inducing moments of a couple arguing right before separation. Though Christie was right, and Paul looked like a wet dog after the exchange, these kinds of fights leave no winners, especially when one would best serve himself as a uniter.
Governor Christie suffers from a common Republican problem: Americans know that Democrats can be “nice,” so they do best when they show that they can be tough. Republicans are expected to be tough, so we must do better to come across as “nice.” Christie’s tough image serves him well in his role as a regional figure. As Scott Walker can attest, regional appeal does not always translate to national appeal. What the national party looks for in a national nominee may differ from what a state party seeks in a governor. For Chris Christie to succeed in this race, he must show Republicans that he can represent (or at least tolerate) all of us.