Chris Christie is a skilled debater, in command of his facts and material, as quick on his feet as they come, often humorous and likable, basically the best talker I've covered in 31 years of reporting on New Jersey politics. But he was wrong about one thing.
Back on July 22, when it was unclear whether he would debate Barbara Buono in the fall and she had just called him a "coward" if he didn't on my program "On The Record," I threw that at the governor at a press conference. He shot back, now somewhat famously, "The days she debates me will be her worst days of the campaign."
As it turns out, they were her two best days, especially the second debate Tuesday night.
For 90 minutes at Montclair State University, Buono had Christie on the defensive. Some of her attacks were blunt, some more subtle. Some were over policy, some over style. I was sitting about eight or 10 feet from where she was standing, the closest panelist to her, and from that vantage point she looked composed, very much present, and ready to pounce.
Christie had the disadvantage of being on the receiving end of criticism almost nonstop. That does not put a smile on your face. Whenever they turned to face each other, I would look past her right into his face, maybe 15 feet away, and it looked a little pained sometimes.
Sure, he delivered some great counterattacks. After she criticized him for his closeness to Democratic Party bosses -- with Joe DiVincenzo seated 25 feet away in the front row of the audience -- he shot back about her glowing praise on the Senate floor of former Middlesex County Sheriff and Democratic Chairman Joe Spicuzzo, now sentenced to prison time for selling jobs in the sheriff's department.
Christie then went on to say Buono coveted Joe D's campaign endorsement and would have trumpeted it had she gotten it. (An audience member told me that after the debate Joe D told him, ". . . she came to my f---ing living room and begged for my endorsement! But I'm saving that piece of information for another time.")
In the first debate, October 8 at William Paterson University, I thought Christie and Buono were both excellent and that the debate was a draw. She told him to "man up" and stop blaming Jon Corzine and others, to "show some courage" on same-sex marriage, and that he was "the last person who should be talking about taxes" given that he'd "raised taxes on the working poor."
Christie gave as good as he got, danced well around the 2016 question ("I can walk and chew gum at the same time.") and got much attention for his chivalry when it came to the silly question of "can you say one thing you like about your opponent?" She gave a snippy answer. He gave a gracious answer, and the commentariat loved how he took the high road and stayed away from personally insulting her. Not so silly a question, after all, since it produced one of the debate's talking points.
Tuesday night, debate number 2, felt somehow different. Her attacks seemed sharper. He looked a little more withered by them. She never stumbled over her words or got caught searching for a word. She had her arguments internalized, like he does.
After 10 months of campaigning, trying out lines, selling herself to people at mostly small gatherings, she has become kinetic, at one with her message, not canned as she has sounded at times on the campaign trail, not so shrill, as she has also sounded. Just passionate and reasoned and in sync with herself.
At a rally on the morning of the debate at "Christie For Governor" headquarters for southeastern Bergen County in Carlstadt, Christie told a room of maybe 75 supporters, "What you're gonna see on stage tonight is what you saw in the first debate, someone who is angry, who is accusatory, who is all over the place. And then there's me," which brought a burst of applause. What I saw, seated on that stage, was two gifted and brave souls striving for a brass ring hovering just so slightly out of reach. And a woman who had finally hit her stride as a credible alternative to the Magic Governor.
Apparently, mine is a minority view, at least among the friends and colleagues I spoke to afterward who were in the hall for the debate. Several said all Christie had to do was avoid any major gaffes, which he did, and therefore he "won."
Another complained that Buono's default mode of attack-attack-attack got "tiresome." I thought it was awesome. As someone who has sat through and enjoyed so many hours of Christie speeches, "remarks", press conferences, and town hall meetings, to see someone relentlessly criticize the man for 90 minutes, what he stands for, how he governs, and do it with cogency, was novel and impressive.
Still another friend thought her numbers didn't add up on education and that waiting 10 years for her "vision" on education to become a reality showed a notable lack of urgency.
"I am tough," Buono said several times last night. "People have always underestimated me. I don't give up! I'm tough!" Last night she embodied those words, and even Chris Christie in the end said it himself, "I don't underestimate Barbara Buono. She is a formidable candidate." Last night she was.