MILWAUKEE — Relegated to the Republican undercard debate for the first time, Chris Christie focused on attacking Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton as he tried to use his performance as a springboard back into the field's top tier.
"Hillary Clinton's coming for your wallet everybody. Don't worry about Huckabee or Jindal, worry about her," he said early on in the hourlong debate.
"If you think Mike Huckabee won't be the kind of president who will cut back spending, or Chris Christie, or John Kasich, wait till you see what Hillary Clinton will do to this country," he added. "She will drown us in debt. She is the real adversary tonight."
The approach couldn't have been more different from that of an aggressive Bobby Jindal. The Louisiana governor repeatedly jabbed at Christie and his fellow Republicans, criticizing their states' economic records and accusing them of being watered-down Democrats instead of true conservatives.
"Let's not just beat Hillary," Jindal said. "Let's elect a conservative to the White House, not just any Republican."
It was a crucial moment for the two sitting governors, each trying to remain relevant in a race for the Republican presidential nomination that has favored political novices who have never held public office. They appeared with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was also relegated from the prime-time debate to the earlier event.
Throughout the debate, Christie kept a tight focus on Clinton on issues ranging from taxes to crime to veterans' care. He said the party's primary focus should be choosing a candidate who can beat Clinton, and said that he is uniquely qualified for the job as a "pro-life Republican" governor from a Democratic state.
"That's the person you want on the stage prosecuting the case against Hillary Clinton," he said, one of several times Christie pointed to his history as a U.S. attorney.
Coming into the debate, Christie and his backers tried to put a positive spin on his downgrade from the main stage, arguing it would give him more airtime to make his case to viewers. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was able to use her position in the first undercard debate to catapult herself into the top-tier of candidates, and some hoped Christie might be able to bounce back.
Jindal has yet to make it onto the main debate stage, and he used his time to hammer home the argument that he was the only person on stage who had cut government spending in his state. He also took aim at Christie's record in New Jersey and Huckabee's in Arkansas.
"We've got four senators running, they've never cut anything," Jindal said. "Records matter."
Santorum, meanwhile, appeared outmaneuvered by his more aggressive rivals, despite notably raising his voice as he contrasted Republicans with Democrats.
"I respect them because they are willing to take it to us," he said.
Colvin reported from Washington.