Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s strong debate performance in Tuscaloosa, Ala., has given him a renewed reason to stay in the GOP presidential primary, even as his prospects for the nomination remain slim.
Christie fiercely criticized former President Trump at the Wednesday debate hosted by NewsNation. He landed attacks on the three rivals who appeared on stage and got in the most debate speaking time he has had so far, by CNN’s count.
But Republicans acknowledge the longer Christie stays in the race, the more he could divide the field and help the former president seal the GOP nomination.
“The better Christie performs, the more likely Trump will be the nominee of the party. It’s that simple because Christie will not be the nominee of the party,” said Republican strategist Justin Sayfie. “And the better he performs, the longer he will stay in the race. And the longer he stays in the race, the bigger advantage Trump has to win the nomination.”
The former two-term New Jersey governor remained a close ally of Trump throughout his presidency and helped prepare him for the 2020 presidential debates against now-President Biden.
But the two had a falling out in the aftermath of Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Christie entered the 2024 race positioning himself as a chief opponent of the former president.
Christie has repeatedly attacked Trump on the campaign trail and throughout the debates, accusing him in the second one of not attending because he was “afraid” to defend his record. He extended that line of attack to on-stage rivals Wednesday, saying they are afraid to criticize Trump.
While he once polled as high as second place in New Hampshire, Christie ranked third at best in the state recently and has stayed near the bottom of the pack in other states and nationwide.
Still, Christie appears likely to stay in the race into next year.
The debate provided him with several memorable moments that could power his campaign. The most intense exchange came when Christie slammed Vivek Ramaswamy for interrupting other candidates on stage and personally attacking former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
“This is the fourth debate that you would be voted in the first 20 minutes as the most obnoxious blowhard in America. So shut up for a little while,” he told Ramaswamy.
He also faced off with DeSantis, accusing him of dodging a question about Trump’s fitness for office.
Sayfie argued that Trump benefits from having as many candidates in the race as possible, splitting the non-Trump vote and making his path to winning the early states easier. He said Christie’s decision about whether to stay in the race would rely on what he “wants to accomplish” with his candidacy.
“If he’s trying to help President Trump, get the nomination and be elected president, he should stay in the race as long as he possibly can,” he said. “If he wants Donald Trump to not be the nominee, that he should get out as quickly as he can.”
Trump has maintained a significant lead in national polls for months, trouncing his closest opponent, usually Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), by at least 40 points.
But his margin in polls the first two states to vote in the GOP nominating process, Iowa and New Hampshire, has been smaller, usually less than a majority.
This has fueled hope among those looking for an alternative to Trump. But strategists have said a single, clear alternative would have the best chance to beat Trump instead of a divided field. Some Republicans said this month that Christie should drop out of the race.
He will have an uphill battle making the next debate stage in Iowa on Jan. 10, with host CNN requiring candidates to receive at least 10 percent in three national or Iowa polls. Qualifying for CNN’s debate in New Hampshire on Jan. 21 with the same requirements appears somewhat more likely.
Christie has dismissed calls to suspend his campaign, arguing that polls are unreliable and pointing to Trump’s pending legal challenges.
Republican strategist Josh Novotney said most of Christie’s current supporters would likely back Haley if he dropped out, so his continued candidacy could hurt hers, especially in New Hampshire.
Novotney said Christie’s strategy in the presidential race was to go on an “attack Donald Trump tour” and try to help spoil Trump’s chances of being reelected, but that strategy has run its course.
“That’s fine if he wants to do that, but he’s gotten to the point now, and it’s pretty obvious I think during the debate that, that strategy is now kind of counterintuitive because with him in the race, he is helping Trump continue to be ahead, particularly in New Hampshire,” he said.
Haley has seen a surge in polling in The Granite State in recent months following strong debate performances. She is in second place in RealClearPolitics’s New Hampshire polling average at nearly 20 percent.
Christie is in third in the average, with about 11 percent.
Republican strategist Mehek Cooke said Christie “definitely” had some effective moments Wednesday and answered questions directly while calling out other candidates for talking “in circles.” But she said Christie is taking votes away from Haley and DeSantis.
“He’s not going to stop Trump independently, but if he were to join another team, maybe,” Cooke said.
She said she expects the picture will be clearer on who is best positioned to beat Trump after the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 15, and Christie should consider endorsing.
“I think we’ll know a lot more after the Iowa caucus to see if their grassroots efforts have paid off. That’s something that nobody can really measure. You have to be on the ground. You have to feel the energy,” she said.
Novotney said he does not think Christie needed a strong debate performance to be emboldened to stay in the race, but that he is staying because he still wants to go after Trump and thinks he may have a chance in New Hampshire.
“He was Chris Christie. He was doing what he did usually … he tells people they’re wrong and he fires at Trump,” Novotney said. “Because some people said he had a good debate, I don’t think that’ll keep him in. I think his plan is to stay in at this point until it’s not.”