Just days ahead of a crucial first Republican presidential debate, Chris Christie held a town hall in the home state of the two leading primary contenders.
“I do know that you have a couple of candidates who live here,” the former New Jersey governor and presidential candidate joked in front of the Miami audience.
Christie wanted GOP voters, specifically in Florida, to know they didn’t have to stick with former President Donald Trump or their current governor, Ron DeSantis. He framed their choice as one between someone focused on voter issues – alluding to himself – and someone “who’ll be fending off the next criminal trial” – alluding to the multiple indictments Trump faces at both the federal and state levels.
“By Wednesday night, the front-runner for our party’s nomination is going to be out on bail in four different jurisdictions,” he told the town hall crowd. “When are we going to stop pretending that this is normal?”
Criticizing Trump, who has called Christie a “sad, pathetic slob” in the past, has been a hallmark of the former governor’s campaign to this point. But Christie also used his Florida stage to go after DeSantis, in part over a recent memo from a pro-DeSantis super PAC floating potential debate talking points that included defending Trump onstage.
“The only way to beat someone is to beat them. If [DeSantis] thinks he’s gonna get on the stage and defend Donald Trump on Wednesday night, then he should do Donald Trump a favor and do our party a favor, come back to Tallahassee, endorse Donald Trump, and get the hell out of the race,” Christie said.
In response to the memo, a spokesperson for the DeSantis campaign pointed out that “this was not a campaign memo and we were not aware of it prior.”
CNN has reached out to the DeSantis campaign over Christie’s comments Friday and the talking points mentioned in the super PAC memo.
One town hall attendee asked the former New Jersey governor how he could attack Trump so forcefully when he had endorsed him in 2016 and advised him on his past campaigns.
“First of all, let me remind you, I ran against Donald Trump, so it’s not like Donald Trump was my first choice for president. I was,” Christie said, referring to his first White House run in 2016. “I thought, having been his friend for 15 years, that I could make him a better candidate and a better president. I was wrong. That’s it. It’s that simple.”
That approach seemed to resonate with some voters who attended Friday’s town hall.
“He does speak his mind and I find that really refreshing in a presidential candidate,” Peter England, who identifies as a moderate Republican, told CNN.
Ted Niarhos, an independent voter in attendance, said he appreciated Christie’s authenticity.
“Everyone’s afraid to say anything and he actually got up and spoke his mind,” Niarhos said. “He said, ‘I made a mistake, and I’m gonna make other mistakes.’ That’s life. We all make mistakes. I like that.”
Christie, who entered the GOP primary in June, has a simple goal for Wednesday’s debate: “Get seen by more people.”
As for a debate master plan? “I don’t have one of these deep strategic approaches to debates.”
“I listen to the question. I try to answer it, and if somebody else says something on the stage I think is really stupid, I try to point it out,” he said.
In 2016, one of Christie’s more notable moments on the debate stage came in the form of a takedown of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio before the New Hampshire primary. But that moment did not translate into success at the ballot box for Christie, who ended up finishing sixth in the Granite State and quickly dropped out of the race afterward.
When asked how this time around would be any different, Christie said, “One, because Donald Trump’s now a known quantity.”
But also, “I always do it better the second time than I do the first. I feel really relaxed and comfortable. And I know I’m speaking the truth, and I think that’s going to matter to people in the long run.”
He brushed off recent poll numbers that show him with high unfavorable ratings among GOP voters. Fifty-seven percent of them had an unfavorable opinion of Christie, according to a recent Fox News poll, compared with 24% who viewed him favorably.
“Those numbers change,” the candidate said. “If you’re going to go after the guy who’s been the nominee for the last two times, you’re going to get some Republicans who are not going to like that.”
Christie sees an opportunity to move up in the polls, especially with recent surveys showing support for DeSantis has slipped and Trump planning to skip the debate, according to multiple sources familiar with his plans.
“It’s fine that everybody knows [Trump] best now, but starting on Wednesday night, that’s going to change and people are going to start to focus on the race,” he said Friday. “When they do, I think we’re going to be just fine.”
A senior Christie adviser told CNN the team didn’t think the campaign “could’ve gone much better for us the first two months” and it hopes to carry that momentum to the debate stage Wednesday.
Christie also used his Florida pulpit Friday to go after DeSantis for some of the cultural fights he has stirred in his home state, especially over transgender rights.
In May, DeSantis signed into law new restrictions on gender-affirming treatments for minors, drag shows, bathroom usage and which pronouns can be used in school.
Christie said the government shouldn’t be involved in decisions related to children, including transgender issues.
“I don’t want him to decide what happens inside my family,” he told the Miami audience, referring to DeSantis.
Christie later brought up Disney and the Florida governor’s yearlong feud with the entertainment giant, one of the state’s largest employers.
“Look, I don’t agree with some of the things that Disney has said and done, but you know who I think gets to decide those things? Disney,” Christie said. “And you know who gets to decide whether we wanna go there anymore? Us. So if they’re doing stuff and saying stuff you don’t believe in, then don’t go to Disney World.”
Christie denied the notion that he’s ramped up his attacks on DeSantis as the debate approaches.
“When Gov. DeSantis does things that I think need to be responded to, I respond to them,” he told reporters in Miami.
But Trump remains the reason he entered the presidential race in the first place, Christie reminded voters at the town hall.
“I decided to get into this because I could not stand by and allow an ugly, divisive, horrible figure to continue to dominate my party without opposition,” he said.