The united Republican establishment front against Donald Trump started to crumble in a potentially profound way on Friday when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie backed the New York billionaire for president with an enthusiastic endorsement.
The move, combined with the endorsement of Maine Governor Paul LePage later Friday, adds the establishment bona fides of two sitting U.S. governors to a devoutly outsider campaign. It also comes just days after Trump’s first two congressional endorsements in Representatives Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California.
In Christie, Trump also gained a powerful surrogate responsible for the lowest moment in the campaign of one of his last Republican adversaries: Marco Rubio.
The New Jersey governor also opened a door for other Republican Party elites, who spent recent days rushing to boost Rubio, and invited them to walk through. If beating Hillary Clinton outweighed all other factors, as the New Jersey governor argued, then other objections to Trump's campaign—such as his bombastic and nativist rhetoric—should take a back seat. As a twice-elected governor of a blue state and former chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie could serve as Trump’s ambassador to establishment donors, lawmakers and behind-the-scenes operators across the nation.
'Rewriting the playbook'
Wasting no time in showing what he brings to the campaign, Christie seized his new role as Trump standard bearer with zeal, undermining Rubio's core pitch for his nomination—his electability—and belittling him as a performer delivering "one act after the other."
"The single most important thing for the Republican Party is to nominate the person who gives us the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton," Christie said at a Fort Worth news conference with Trump. "I can guarantee you that the one person Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage come next September is Donald Trump. They know how to run the standard political playbook against junior senators and run them around the block. They do not know the playbook with Donald Trump, because he is rewriting the playbook."
The Christie endorsement comes four days before a burst of nomination contests take place on March 1, known as "Super Tuesday." After winning three of the first four states by large margins, a string of victories next Tuesday could make Trump all but unstoppable, which is why rivals Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas aggressively attacked him in a televised debate Thursday night.
Within hours of Christie's endorsement, Trump landed the backing of LePage, who praised the real estate mogul's business acumen on the Howie Carr Show, a syndicated radio program.
The final frontier of resistance
Trump has shown broad appeal within the party, as he himself explained on Friday. "I won in a landslide," he said, referring to the South Carolina primary. "I won evangelicals. I won military. I won the vets. I won everything. I won men. I won women. I won Hispanics. I won every single category."
But the one group of Republicans who have continued to overwhelmingly oppose him are lawmakers and influential consultants. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped lead the charge in 1994 elections that handed the party its first House majority in four decades, said it's time to re-think that.
"This Chris Christie endorsement of Trump is real signal to GOP establishment that they had better begin thinking about Trump as the future," Gingrich said on Twitter, adding in another posting, "this is a huge step for Trump" that will have a big impact on Super Tuesday.
The establishment pushes back
Meanwhile, two former aides to Jeb Bush, an ex-rival who waged bitter fights with Trump and Christie during the primary, fiercely criticized the governor. "Like Trump, Chris Christie is a pathetic, corrupt man with a tiny ego. I'm sure they bonded discussing their insecurities over a big meal," Tim Miller, Bush's former communications director, wrote on Twitter.
David Kochel, the former Jeb Bush strategist, seemed to evoke Christie's weight.
For Christie, throwing his support behind Trump could be seen as payback against Rubio after a bitter primary fight. As Christie climbed in New Hampshire, the state where he put all his chips, the pro-Rubio super PAC Conservative Solutions spent large amounts of money on TV ads in the Granite State attacking the governor.
They left a mark, and Christie never quite recovered despite landing a devastating blow against Rubio in his final debate of the Republican race.
Speaking to reporters while campaigning Friday, Rubio characterized the endorsement as an act of desperation by Trump after the debate.
"Chris is an articulate guy. You know, Donald probably needs a life-line after last night, so he called in Chris Christie. I respect that," Rubio said. "I have more than my fair share of endorsements."