Christie's scorched earth attack plan

Rubio, Christie exchange blows early
Rubio, Christie exchange blows early

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    Rubio, Christie exchange blows early

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Rubio, Christie exchange blows early 02:14

Story highlights

  • Republican presidential debate took place Saturday in New Hampshire
  • Tara Setmayer: Chris Christie had scorched earth attack plan for Marco Rubio

Tara Setmayer is former communications director for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, and a CNN political commentator. Follow her on Twitter @tarasetmayer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)After a 10th place finish in Iowa and polling in single digits nationally, Chris Christie's presidential ambitions hinge on his performance in New Hampshire. And he knows it. Christie has invested significant time and money in New Hampshire (much to the chagrin of his constituents in New Jersey, where his approval rating has fallen to close to an all-time low of 31%).

"I've got to beat Jeb and Kasich here, and if I don't beat Jeb and Kasich here, I have to think long and hard about whether I go forward or not," Christie told the Washington Post after the Iowa result.
Christie recognizes it's do or die for him at this point in the race. But it wasn't his fellow governors he turned his fire on after Iowa. It was Senator Marco Rubio.
    Tara Setmayer
    Rubio's strong finish in Iowa has propelled him into second place in New Hampshire, posing a direct threat to Christie's political life. In the days leading up to the last GOP debate before the primary, Christie's attacks against Rubio became more pointed and more personal.
    As the debate unfolded, it became apparent Christie had a pre-meditated, scorched earth attack plan ready for Senator Rubio. Like a bruiser in the boxing ring, Christie landed strategic haymakers on Rubio knocking him down, not once but twice.
    Reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's famous "there you go again" debate moment in 1980, Christie quipped "there it is again," after Rubio gave the same answer for the third time. Christie hit Rubio square on the chin highlighting the freshman Senator's penchant for repeating "25 second memorized responses," after Rubio regurgitated lines about President Obama -- and he got booed for it.
    Given Christie telegraphed his line of attack prior to the debate, it was quite surprising how ill-prepared Rubio was to defend himself. Where was the counterpunch? Rubio was clearly thrown off his game plan by falling into the trap of trying to fight the other guy's fight. If this had been a real boxing match, you would've heard the crowd go "Ohhhhh" as their guy hit the canvas. Without question, it was a cringe worthy moment for Rubio.
    But even though Christie skewered Rubio for canned responses, aren't all the candidates guilty of that to some degree? How many times have we heard Christie remind us all of his days as a prosecutor after 9-11? Or Trump repeating ad nauseum how much we're "going to win," if he's elected. Ironically, the same people who criticize Rubio give Trump a pass for doing essentially the same thing. Why the double standard?
    You have to remember, other than Trump, most of the candidates haven't had wall to wall coverage of their stump speeches, so outside of the political punditry class who follow this stuff 24-7, most voters have not heard it all before. Candidates want to create their own narratives before their opponents do it for them -- take Trump vs. "low energy" Jeb, for example. However, there is a fine line between message discipline and being a Johnny one note. It can turn voters off if they think you have nothing more to offer.
    Christie may have stunted "Marcomentum" but at what cost? Did he potentially sacrifice his chances to do so? Although Christie's tough guy modus operandi was initially an asset for him, it began to wear thin after he told one too many dissidents in New Jersey to "sit down and shut up."
    Luckily for Rubio, he was able to avoid the TKO by redeeming himself during the second half of the debate. He picked himself off the canvas with strong answers on ISIS, his definition of conservatism and how to handle social issues. Going on the offensive against Hillary Clinton scored much needed points for Rubio as well, but was it enough to repair the damage done earlier in the debate?
    Most people remember the knockdowns more than the comebacks, unless that comeback ends up in a knockout. If Christie's assault on Rubio doesn't pay off with a surge in the polls for him, it will be Rubio who gets the last laugh as he punches his ticket out of New Hampshire.