Struggling Republican candidates hope debate is a pivot point away from Trump

WOLFEBORO, N.H. — With Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate looming, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sounded an urgent call: “It’s time for us to get serious.”

“This race has been entertaining — very entertaining,” he told a packed crowd at a town hall meeting here last weekend. But, he declared, “showtime is over, everybody.”

“You don’t want somebody sitting in the [Oval Office] chair, spinning around going, ‘Gee, whiz, isn’t it great to be president?’ ” he added. “You want somebody who’s going to … understand from the first minute he sits in that chair that this is serious business.”

Candidates such as Mr. Christie — mainstream Republicans who have climbed the political ladder from one government office to the next — have been drowned out and out-polled, much to their frustration and humiliation, by Donald Trump and other insurgents.

But now they hope that tonight’s CNN debate in Las Vegas — the first since terrorist attacks in Paris and California refocused voter attention — will be a clarifying moment to pivot into a more sober final phase. This get-serious caucus, which also includes Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has been begging voters to evaluate candidates not on their rhetoric, personalities and projections of strength, but on their governing records, knowledge and worldliness.

The problem is that it hasn’t worked. Since the attacks, Mr. Trump has only gotten stronger, reaching 41 percent among GOP voters in a Monmouth University survey released Monday. The billionaire argues that his unpredictable and controversial style — exemplified last week with his proposal to ban most Muslims from entering the United States — is just what the nation needs.

“We’ve got to get down to the problems. We can’t worry about being politically correct. We just can’t afford any more to be so politically correct,” Mr. Trump said last week in New Hampshire.

The establishment candidates, however, have faith that the voters may finally heed their calls, and hope that tonight’s debate will allow them to shift the conversation.

Over several days campaigning in New Hampshire last week, Mr. Bush was eager to chart a different path for the country than Mr. Trump’s and complained about reporters asking him about the billionaire mogul.

Mr. Bush said at a town hall meeting in Hooksett that he thinks voters will say, “I want someone who can actually lead, that can do the job, that I can look into the past and have some sense going forward that he has the right stuff, that he can make the right decisions, that he’s a serious person.”

As Mr. Kasich put it on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “At the end, people are going to say, ‘Who can land the plane and who has got the experience?’ They’re frustrated. They’re upset. But you know what? Over time, people tend to settle down when they actually go into the voting booth.”

For Mr. Christie, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kasich, a shift in the race’s focus is imperative. All three lag behind less experienced candidates in the polls and are getting desperate to find momentum. Mr. Christie at least is on the rise in New Hampshire, where he is drawing enthusiastic crowds and has jumped to second place in the latest WBUR poll.

Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida are also touting their national security know-how.

Campaigning in Iowa a few days after the California shootings, Mr. Cruz said that voters now are “looking at every candidate for president and assessing who’s prepared to be commander in chief, who has the experience, who has the clarity of vision, who has the strength and resolve to keep this country safe and who has the judgment.”

The three governors, however, believe they are more seasoned than the two first-term senators. Mr. Christie — who as U.S. attorney was New Jersey’s chief federal prosecutor in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — has been particularly dismissive of Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio.

“This isn’t like getting briefed in the basement of the Senate about some theoretical threat where all you have to do is nod and take notes,” Mr. Christie told a town-hall audience Saturday in Weare, N.H.

In an interview in Wolfeboro, Mr. Christie maintained that he is the lone GOP candidate in a field of 14 who has first-hand experience fighting terrorism.

“The only person on that stage who’s had to make decisions about it, conducted investigations using the Patriot Act, conducted investigations using the FISA court, dealt with federal agents and using those resources, interacted with foreign governments on terrorist investigations — I’m the only person who’s done that,” he said.

“I personally know all the tools that are available and have used them,” he continued. “No one else on that stage has done that. They’ve just heard about it from other people. It’s the difference between playing in a sport and being a spectator.”

Mr. Rubio has staked out hawkish positions on national security in an attempt to draw distinctions with his rivals, especially Mr. Cruz. He considers foreign affairs one of his specialties and he spoke at length last week in Iowa about confronting the Islamic State and about his experiences evaluating sensitive information.

“As a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, I don’t just have access to the most classified and sensitive information before the federal government, but also the individuals responsible for turning that information into action,” he said.

Today’s debate will offers an opportunity for the trailing candidates — all of whom condemned Mr. Trump for his proposed Muslim ban — to go mano a mano with the national front-runner.

Mr. Bush has not held a public event since Thursday night and has been rehearsing intensively to get ready for the debate. Advisers Peter Flaherty, Michael Steel and Trent Wisecup joined him in a conference room at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Manchester, N.H., last Wednesday morning for a prep session, and a similar meeting was convened in Miami on Saturday.

Christie backer Jeb Bradley, the New Hampshire state Senate majority leader and a former congressman, said he thinks Mr. Christie can pry away some of Mr. Trump’s supporters with an effective contrast.

“He has a lot of similarities to Mr. Trump in that he’s plain-spoken, but without some of the bombast of Mr. Trump,” Mr. Bradley said. “I think for people that like Mr. Trump, Gov. Christie is the full package in terms of ability to just do the job,” Mr. Bradley said in an interview. “I think he needs to take folks away from Mr. Trump, and we’ll see how that goes.”

Asked in the interview whether he was planning to take on Mr. Trump in the debate, Mr. Christie said he has no plans to. But he added, “We’ll see what happens.”

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