The fourth Republican undercard debate Wednesday night in Milwaukee amounted to a last chance.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was on the attack from the beginning of the debate, which came ahead of the main event later in the night.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, recently demoted from the main stage, was an uncooperative target. Jindal repeatedly zinged Christie, calling him a “big-government Republican,” and at one point said he should get a “juice box” for participation in the conservative movement.
Christie, showing an uncharacteristic discipline in the face of annoyance, repeatedly said he was more interested in beating Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton than in battling with Jindal. The former federal prosecutor used the verb “prosecute” repeatedly when describing how he could debate Clinton in the general election.
“You need someone who’s going to stand up on that stage and prosecute the case against her,” he said.
Christie also made an appeal to law enforcement officers, saying he would support them more than President Obama had in the roiling debate over police shootings and police brutality. “I will have your back,” Christie said.
Christie ended on a note of bipartisan hopes: “I will go to Washington . . . to bring this entire country together for a better future for our children and grandchildren.”
The other two candidates onstage had less air time but still managed memorable moments. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), describing his grudging admiration for hardball tactics employed by Democrats, shouted out the words “They fight!” It was the loudest moment of the night, though perhaps an odd message to leave people with.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, also relegated to the early debate, again defended federal “entitlement” programs such as Medicare and Social Security, saying that Americans had paid into those programs and deserved to have them pay out.
His most memorable moment, however, was a joke. When asked about Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Huckabee responded like the folksy preacher he used to be: “Well, my wife’s name’s Janet. When you say Janet yellin’, I’m very familiar with what you mean.”
At various points, Jindal called out Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) — though not by name — as all talk and no action. He called out Huckabee as being a big spender. And he blasted Christie, who had been the dominant figure in the debate’s first half, saying he did too little to cut state spending.
“Let’s not be a second liberal party,” Jindal said, talking about Christie. “Let’s just not beat Hillary. Let’s elect a conservative to the White House, not just any Republican.”
Christie, for his part, did not take Jindal’s bait. Instead, he repeatedly cast himself as somebody who could appeal to moderates and win in blue states.
The most memorable moment for Santorum came when he tried to play off Jindal and Christie’s tension. He noted that one man claimed to be a true conservative and the other said he could win in a blue state. Santorum raised his arms in a “Why not me?” gesture, a moment that indicated that he thought he combined both qualities.
Christie and Huckabee also spent time attacking the Internal Revenue Service and blaming the federal tax code with weakening manufacturing and the United States generally.
“First, make the tax code fairer, flatter and simpler,” Christie said. He described making the U.S. tax code so simple that individuals could file their taxes in 15 minutes. “I’ll be able to fire a whole bunch of IRS agents once we do that,” Christie said.
Huckabee went Christie one better and said that he would eliminate the income tax entirely and move to a “fair tax,” essentially a national retail sales tax.
“We get rid of the IRS,” Huckabee said. “We completely eliminate it. Because the government has no business knowing how much money we make, and how we make it. . . . That’s none of their business.”
Huckabee and Christie were dismissed from the main debate stage after not reaching the 2.5 percent threshold in national polls. They joined Jindal and Santorum, who have been in the low performers’ debates all along.
Sean Sullivan in Washington, Jenna Johnson in Springfield, Ill., Philip Rucker in St. Francis, Wis., and Robert Costa in Milwaukee contributed to this report.