For more than 15 minutes, three of the four Republican candidates on the debate stage fended off sharp questions from Megyn Kelly and made a case for their electability. But as they attacked one another’s records, former President Donald J. Trump, the dominant front-runner in the race, was notably absent from the conversation.
Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mr. Trump’s fiercest critic among his Republican opponents, took notice.
“I look at my watch now. We’re 17 minutes into this debate,” Mr. Christie said to Ms. Kelly. “And except for your little speech in the beginning, we’ve had these three acting as if the race is between the four of us.”
Mr. Christie, referring to Mr. Trump as “the fifth guy” and “Voldemort, he who shall not be named,” mocked the former president as a coward who “doesn’t have the guts to show up and stand here” — and denounced the other candidates for fighting among themselves while ignoring their strongest opponent, who skipped Wednesday’s debate to attend a private fund-raiser.
Referring to Mr. Trump as a “dictator,” a “bully” and an “angry, bitter man,” Mr. Christie criticized his opponents on the debate stage — Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Ron DeSantis — as too timid to criticize the former president. Maybe, he suggested, they were unwilling to do so because “they have future aspirations,” an allusion to succeeding Mr. Trump or becoming a member of his administration.
“This is the problem with my three colleagues. They’re afraid to offend,” Mr. Christie said. Referring to the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, he added, “And if you’re afraid to offend Donald Trump, then what are you going to do when you sit across from President Xi?”
Mr. Christie also pointed to Mr. Trump’s statements about his plans to go after his political enemies if elected to a second term, in an attempt to make the case to Trump supporters that the former president is unfit to return to the White House.
“There’s no bigger issue in this race than Donald Trump,” Mr. Christie said, later adding, “This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him.”
His comments reflected a debate strategy of sharply criticizing Mr. Trump — even if the former president is physically absent, and even if the attacks get Mr. Christie booed by Trump supporters in the audience.
Mr. Christie has sought a face-to-face confrontation with Mr. Trump, and he has often expressed his frustration about having to compete against a front-runner who doesn’t want to face his opponents in a debate.