Nobody is less impressed with Marco Rubio’s earth-shaking, timeline-altering, epoch-defining third-place finish in Iowa than Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor – who has been campaigning intensely in New Hampshire, taking only brief respites to go on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and (time permitting) handle weather emergencies in his state – responded to Marco Rubio’s non-victory with a classic bit of Jersey machismo. “Unlike some of these other campaigns, I’m not the boy in the bubble … So when Sen. Rubio gets here, when the boy in the bubble gets here, I hope you guys ask him some questions,” Christie said. “Let’s get the boy in the bubble out of the bubble, and let’s see him play for the next week in New Hampshire.”
That’s basically the equivalent of Christie grabbing his crotch and shouting “I got your caucus RIGHT HERE!” It’s all part of Christie’s self-made image as the swaggering hard-ass straight talker who will tell it like it is and be the strongman tough guy America so desperately needs. But this attack on Rubio is noteworthy for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it’s an intensely personal swipe. Typically, when Christie goes after Rubio or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, he focuses more on the fact that they’re a trio of meek and useless U.S. senators who don’t do anything beyond argue in the Capitol basement. “It's perfectly legal in this country to change your mind,” Christie said at the Fox News debate last month, “but when you're a governor, you have to admit it. You can't hide behind parliamentary tricks.” But all this business about Rubio being a “boy in the bubble” has a spiteful and nasty edge to it. He’s calling Rubio a coward and a weakling.
The timing of the attack is also interesting. Yes, it came right on the heels of Rubio’s massive P.R. coup in Iowa, but it also comes as Christie himself is cratering in New Hampshire. For months and months, Christie was the beneficiary of a widespread media hunt for the Christie Comeback – every month or so, some pundit or reporter would guess that Christie was due for a rise in the polls because “he’s a fighter” and “you can’t count him out” and so forth. That Comeback never seemed to materialize until the beginning of December as Christie’s numbers in New Hampshire, which had been stuck in the mid-single digits for months, began creeping up. He reached a high of 11.5 percent right around the New Year, and since then it’s been a steady slide back down to the mid-single digits. That brief New Hampshire bump was not mirrored nationally (he’s at 3 percent), in Iowa (he finished with 2 percent), or in South Carolina (where he’s currently at 2 percent).
Christie’s losing his appeal in the only place he’s demonstrated the barest glimmer of viability, and so he’s flailing. He recognizes that Rubio represents the biggest threat to his fast-evaporating presidential hopes. Heading into Iowa, there was a four-man pileup in the so-called establishment lane in New Hampshire, with Christie, Rubio, Jeb and John Kasich all jostling for second place behind Donald Trump. Christie’s best, only hope for continuing on after New Hampshire is for that vote to remain split and for him to somehow scratch out a narrow second-place finish ahead of the scrum. The GOP establishment’s enthusiasm for Rubio coming out of Iowa threatens that dynamic, so Christie’s trying to crush him.
Ordinarily he’d be totally screwed, given Rubio’s popularity and his own dwindling numbers, but Christie has an ally of convenience in this fight: Jeb Bush. Jeb’s in a similar, if slightly less precarious, position than Christie in New Hampshire, and he’s also come to the conclusion that Marco Rubio must be destroyed. And Jeb brings to the table a fairly well-funded super PAC that has no problem with launching a total war on Rubio’s name and reputation. So all Christie has to do is get the Jersey swagger out there and mock Rubio as a coddled youth.
There’s a Republican debate in New Hampshire this weekend, which is Christie’s best chance to directly confront Rubio before the voting actually starts. He’s landed some solid hits on Rubio in past debates, but now he’s showing some signs of desperation and could very well carry the Jersey tough guy routine a bit too far. It’s one thing to tell a local activist to “shut up” or call a former Navy SEAL an idiot, but bullying the emerging GOP golden boy Marco Rubio? Republican voters might not take too well to that.