WASHINGTON: In a jolt to one of the wildest primary contests in recent memory, Republican front-runner Donald Trump won the backing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Friday, who himself is former presidential candidate.
Christie is one of the first establishment Republicans to endorse Trump in a nominating race where many in the party have been distressed by the billionaire New York businessman's campaign tactics and policy proposals.
"I've gotten to know all the people on that stage and there is none who is better prepared to provide America with the strong leadership that it needs both at home and around the world than Donald Trump," Christie said at a news conference in Texas.
Trump shared his reaction when Christie notified his campaign: "I said, 'Wow, this is really important.'"
The endorsement is yet more momentum as Trump moves into the critical Super Tuesday primary elections next week and was followed by a nod from Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who broke the news in an interview with Howie Carr, a conservative radio talk-show host.
It also turns the story away from the series of brutal rhetorical attacks from Trump's top opponents in the party's tenth debate on Thursday night.
The bombastic billionaire's candidacy has defied all the rules that normally apply in the contest for the highest office in the United States. Trump repeatedly has made politically incorrect statements, used salty language and denigrated Hispanics and Muslims.
Nevertheless, he holds a big lead in national polling heading into the Tuesday primaries and a caucus in 11 states with a treasure of 595 delegates that could make his nomination all but certain.
So far, after four primary and caucus contests, Trump has 82 delegates, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has 17 and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has 16. A candidate must have 1,237 state delegates to win the Republican nomination at the party's convention this summer.
Trump's unexpected candidacy and front-runner status reflect Americans' anger over government deadlock, a slow recovery from the Great Recession and a fear of terrorism.
Rubio has been trying to position himself as the party establishment's candidate, but the Christie endorsement suddenly made that more of a challenge.
"We don't need any more of these Washington, D.C., acts," Christie said of Rubio at Friday's announcement.
From the start of Thursday night's debate, a fiery Rubio went hard after Trump, attacking his position on immigration, his privileged background, his speaking style and more.
Cruz piled on, questioning the New York businessman's conservative credentials. The debate reflected the increasing urgency of their effort to take Trump down before he becomes unstoppable.
It was a rare night where Trump found himself on the defensive. The other two candidates, Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and John Kasich, the Ohio governor, were largely left to watch the fireworks.
Rubio was the principal aggressor of the night. Taking on Trump's declaration that he'd build a wall on the Mexican border, Rubio declared: "If he builds a wall the way he built Trump Tower, he'll be using illegal immigration to do it."
Trump insisted that even though officials in Mexico have said they won't pay for his planned wall, "Mexico will pay for the wall." And he said that since Mexico's current and former presidents had criticized him on the issue, "the wall just got 10 feet taller."
Trump, known for his frequent use of coarse and profane language on the campaign trail, also scolded former Mexican President Vicente Fox for using a profanity in talking about Trump's plan for the wall.
"He should be ashamed of himself and he should apologize," declared Trump.
At a congressional dinner Thursday night, former Republican candidate and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham derided Trump and said the party had gone "batshit crazy."
Rubio kept up the assault in a campaign appearance Friday, calling Trump a "con artist."
As for Cruz, Trump took a more personal tack in the debate, saying, "You get along with nobody. ... You should be ashamed of yourself."
Cruz is widely disliked by fellow Republicans.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton had South Carolina mostly to herself a day before the first-in-the-South primary Saturday, and she's using it to capitalize on her advantage over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with black voters.