When it was revealed last week that Fox Business Network had made the decision to cull the Republican candidate field, dropping two candidates from Tuesday’s debate entirely, and relegating two more to the less prestigious “undercard” it was almost universally called terrible news for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie, who has appeared on the main stage in all three of the first GOP debates, got the news that he and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee would be dropped to the 7 p.m. first debate because of low poll numbers, rather than the prime time 9 p.m. slot. (Former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, both polling below 1 percent, were dropped from the debates entirely.)
The news came just as Christie got the first break his campaign has seen in months. Footage of his response to a question from a town hall participant about his policy toward illegal drug use had just gone viral. Christie, who has long advocated treating drug addicts with compassion and helping them find help, delivered a heartfelt reply, including the story of a family friend who had died from prescription painkiller abuse.
Many saw the news that Fox Business would drop him to the secondary debate as immediately checking whatever momentum Christie might have gained from the viral video. However, there are a number of reasons to believe that participating in the undercard is actually a good thing for the New Jersey governor.
First, though it is very clearly meant to be a venue for second-tier candidates, relegation to the undercard debate is not by itself a campaign death sentence. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina used a dominant performance in the first undercard debate to vault her campaign into the top tier.
Another benefit for Christie is simply the circumstances under which the debate will take place.
The current frontrunner in the national polls, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is under intense fire in the press for various stories he has told about his upbringing and background that reporters have been unable to verify or have found to be false.
The two strongest establishment candidates, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have been trading punches the past week, with Bush trying hard to wrest away some of Rubio’s support--even as Rubio collects endorsements and donors once thought to be aligned with Bush.
And of course, billionaire and former reality television star Donald Trump will be at the center of the stage, between Carson and Rubio, both of whom he has been relentlessly attacking over the past week.
In short, there will be an awful lot of pre-determined drama on the main debate stage, none of it involving Christie, which would probably limit his opportunities to score a breakout performance anyway.
On the undercard stage, however, Christie will be a dominant presence. In addition to Huckabee, the two other candidates participating will be Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. All four are experienced politicians, but of the group, Christie is far and away the best at working a crowd, delivering the devastating comeback, and drawing the cameras to him.
Combine that with the newfound interest in the New Jersey governor in the wake of the viral video, and there is a credible chance that Christie could come out of the Tuesday evening contest in far better shape than he went in, and in better shape than he would likely have exited an appearance on the main stage.
It’s by no means a slam-dunk. To turn this particular lemon into lemonade, Christie will need to deliver a sharp and focused performance that blows the three other candidates off the stage, making it plain that he really belongs with the major players.
For a one-time frontrunner whose numbers have been stuck in the low single digits since June, it may be his last, best chance.