Chris Christie's campaign strategist

GOP Debate: Christie challenges Hillary, regains ground in undercard

By Morgan Gilbard and Enrica Nicoli-Aldini

MILWAUKEE – The Republican “undercard” debate on Tuesday featured candidates proposing a litany of traditionally conservative plans and ideals – repealing Obamacare, shrinking government, eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, and turning away Syrian refugees.

But the candidate attacked by the others for his arguably less conservative record was the one who seemed to come out on top.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dodged attacks from his Republican opponents and focused his attention on striking at likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“If we do not change course, if we follow the president’s lead, we will be in a worse off position,” Christie pointedly said of Clinton early in the evening.

Christie was joined onstage at the Milwaukee Theatre by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Both Christie and Huckabee failed to hit the 2.5 percent threshold Fox Business Network required for joining the prime-time lineup.

During a debate that focused largely on economic policy, the four candidates echoed conservative dreams of small government, lower taxes and a resurgence of American manufacturing. All candidates came together in calling for Obamacare’s repeal, simplifying the tax code and, on the eve of Veteran’s Day, an extensive reform of an antiquated Veterans Affairs system.

The candidates repeatedly intertwined their conservative narrative with critiques of their Democratic opponents and the Obama Administration.

“You would think that there was a Republican in office with how much they complain about the economy,” Santorum said.

Jindal took the first intraparty punch, claiming that only he has actually reduced spending as governor of Louisiana. While Huckabee refuted the claims, Jindal’s words carried some truth. Huckabee didn’t cut spending as governor of Arkansas, but instead addressed the state’s debt by increasing income, sin and sales taxes in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.

Christie stayed quiet during the exchange. Calling Christie a “big-government Republican,” Jindal alluded to more liberal points of Christie’s career. New Jersey’s state budget increased by 15 percent between 2011 and 2015 under Christie’s leadership, according to the CATO Institute, a conservative think-tank.

Instead of rebutting Jindal’s accusations, Christie directed his focus at Clinton, calling her the “real adversary” when it comes to cutting government spending. “The bottom line is that she’s coming for your wallet,” he said.

Questioned on taxes, the four candidates presented different plans. Santorum proposed a 20 percent flat tax on both individual and corporate income. Christie proposed a 28 percent tax rate on the highest income bracket, while Jindal proposed three income tax rates at 5, 10 and 25 percent, depending on income, so that “every American has skin in the game.”

Huckabee defended his “Fair Tax” flat tax plan as a way to “not punish Americans for their work.” Huckabee also proposed the elimination of the IRS. “How much money we make is none of their business,” he said, prompting a round of applause from the audience.

Mike Huckabee at GOP debate in Milwaukee
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the “Spin Room” at the GOP debate in Milwaukee. (Morgan Gilbard/MEDILL).
Huckabee was the only candidate who addressed President Barack Obama’s plan to open the country’s doors to 10,000 refugees from Syria. Huckabee said that America’s priority should be to let the economy grow again, and that the government should take care of Americans before helping others.

“We have no idea who these people are,” he said. “Let’s find out who they really are, and the ones that are really in danger, let’s help build an encampment for them, but closer to where they live, rather than bringing them here when they don’t know the language, the culture.”

Huckabee spouted a few sound-bites that will serve him well over the next week. While the HuffPost Pollster places Huckabee ahead of his undercard opponents in the Iowa caucuses, polling this early in the primary season is often volatile.

Christie’s strong performance in the undercard debate was just a preview of things to come, according to his campaign.

“Our job is to peak in February–not September, October, November,” said Mike Duhaime, a senior strategist for the Christie campaign.

Duhaime said the campaign is not concerned about last month’s Rutgers University poll, which found that 67 percent of New Jersey residents think Christie should drop out of the race. “He doesn’t live poll-to-poll, week-to-week from Rutgers or any of these other polls,” said Duhaime.

Christie did not join his undercard opponents in the media “spin room” following the debate. There Jindal criticized Christie for his repeated references to Clinton throughout the debate.

But the Louisiana Governor also had strong words about a potential Clinton victory. “Four more years of these policies and we won’t recognize America anymore,” Jindal said in the spin room.

Jindal and Santorum survived the evening without major gaffes or departures from their rhetoric. However, they remain unlikely to survive the primary. Among the undercard candidates, Christie possibly gained the most momentum throughout the evening–often demonstrating more charisma and appeal to moderate Republicans than Huckabee.

He seemed to be already looking ahead to the general election as a war against Clinton that he plans to fight, invoking the same populist rhetoric that Clinton herself has been using.

“She believes that she can make better decisions for you than you can make for yourself,” Christie said. “The greatness of America is not in its government. It’s in its people.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Chris Christie campaign strategist Mike Duhaime in the “Spin Room” of the GOP debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday night. (Raquel Zaldivar/MEDILL)