The consensus winner of the CNBC GOP Debate in Boulder, Colorado was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in second. But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie deserved the “most improved” award with a performance that could vault him back into serious contention.
Christie was relaxed yet assertive in his responses. He stood up for police against the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and he drew enthusiastic applause from the audience when he criticized government regulation of fantasy football.
“We have $19 trillion in debt, we have people out of work, we have ISIS and Al Qaeda attacking us, and we’re talking about fantasy football?” he asked, to roaring cheers.
Christie barely made it onto the main stage for the first and second debates, and there was already talk of him being relegated to the undercard debate before the third GOP debate.
However, he found his stride as one of his most formidable rivals, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, stumbled.
Bush aimed a killer blow at Rubio over his missed votes in the Senate. Rubio countered by citing politicians who had missed a higher percentage of votes while running for president, and added: “Someone has convinced you that attacking me is gonna help you.” The line deflated Bush for the rest of the night.
Ted Cruz had his finest moment in pushing back against the moderators for the aggressive questions they posed to all the candidates, which he pointed out were far rougher than any questions asked to the Democratic candidates in Las Vegas earlier in the month. He drew laughs by offering one of the moderators pot brownies as a conciliatory gesture.
Donald Trump had a good night, citing CNBC’s own Larry Kudlow in support of his tax plan, even as the CNBC moderators tried to criticize it. However, he stumbled over his own immigration policy.
Carly Fiorina did well, but seemed ill at ease when defending her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
New frontrunner Dr. Ben Carson was relatively quiet, though he delivered a strident answer on gay marriage, arguing that supporters of traditional marriage were not homophobes.
Christie’s strong night means that if, as expected, Jeb Bush continues to stumble, the New Jersey governor may well challenge Marco Rubio for the support of Bush’s former donors.
Initially, Christie had been the Republican establishment’s preferred choice. That favor shifted to Bush, and has lately been shifting to Rubio, but Christie could offer strong competition.
It may have been his last chance to do so. But other governors–who were expected to do far better–have faded, and Christie may be able to exploit the gap.