Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images.
UPDATE: As promised, Chris Christie officially endorsed Mitt Romney at a campaign event this afternoon in New Hampshire.
The New Jersey governor said the move was an "easy decision" and that Romney's experience in both the public and private sectors make him the right person for the job.
But perhaps more noteworthy than Christie's kind words for Romney were the harsh ones he had for Rick Perry. Speaking at a press conference ahead of tonight's GOP debate, Christie reportedly blasted the Texas governor for his association with a pastor who called Mormonism a "cult" and non-Christian last week.
Here is Christie's quote, via Politico:
"These type of religious matters have nothing to do with the quality of somebody's ability to lead," Christie said. "Any campaign that associates itself with that type of conduct is beneath the office of president of the United States."
Romney later doubled down, calling on Perry "to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks," and alleging that Perry had handpicked the pastor, Robert Jeffress, to introduce him at the Values Voter Summit on Friday. (Perry's camp has said he does not believe Mormonism is a cult, but has stopped short of rejecting the comments or Jeffress's endorsement.)
Politco points out that Romney was playing a little loose with the facts: the Family Research Council selected Jeffress for the speaking slot and Team Perry signed off. Still, the political website notes, "the newly forceful pushback from Romney and his endorser shows that the former Massachusetts governor is increasingly comfortable raising the stakes in the debate over his faith."
UPDATE at 1:39 p.m. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will endorse Mitt Romney ahead of tonight's New Hampshire debate, Fox News is reporting.
The move is "a major coup for Romney that could help him solidify his front-runner status and build an aura of inevitability around his campaign," according to the National Journal.
Christie is expected to join Romney at a campaign event at 3 p.m. in Lebanon, N.H. The Garden State governor announced last week that he was not going to jump into the GOP presidential nominating contest, despite the urging of a number of Republican donors and powerbrokers.
POST at 12:25 p.m.: The GOP field heads to New Hampshire tonight where they’ll go head-to-head on the economy – while no doubt finding opportunities to tangle on everything from religion to immigration and, perhaps even, poorly named hunting camps.
Mitt Romney enters the Dartmouth College debate back atop the polls and again the center of attention. Fittingly, he’ll take his place in one of the two centermost positions on stage.
Joining him front and center will be Herman Cain, who is riding a recent surge in polls and has supplanted Rick Perry as Romney’s most immediate challenger in the eyes of some organizers. (The debate's organizers say they made the decision to move Cain toward the center based on recent poll numbers.)
The New York Times reports Perry will be shifted slightly off center, where he’ll likely join long shots Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in attempting to steal the spotlight away from Romney and Cain. As Politico notes, the move may give Perry a chance to regain his footing, although it also "diminishes his status as a front-runner and makes a dramatic confrontation with Romney a bit harder."
The economics debate comes as President Obama is pushing a $447 billion jobs package that the GOP has decried as “class warfare,” and while anti-Wall Street protests are radiating out from New York City. Given all that, the debate may provide somewhat of a respite from the recent controversies over topics like Romney’s Mormonism and Perry’s hunting camp.
Still, that’s not to say that those topics won’t come up, especially since candidates will be able to ask each other questions. The order will go alphabetically, beginning with Bachmann.
Given the slow and steady approach that has kept Romney in the top tier since the nomination battle began, one would guess that all of the candidates will again look to try to humble the former Massachusetts governor however they can, possibly by going back to the "RomneyCare" well.
Perry, whose campaign is on the ropes, is expected to catch some heat as well, if for no other reason than he seems to be terrible in debates. Cain, too, will likely get his fair share of attention, specifically for his catchy (fitting of a pizza tycoon, actually) 9-9-9 tax plan.
Look for the nominees to also take on questions about the bank bailouts, the stimulus program, the health care reform effort, the Dodd-Frank efforts to regulate the banking industry and environmental regulations.