By Emily Stephenson
FORT WORTH, Texas (Reuters) – Republican candidate Donald Trump on Friday won the surprise endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the most prominent mainstream Republican to get behind the former reality TV star’s White House campaign.
Christie said the billionaire businessman had the best chance of beating Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election.
The front-runner Trump’s unorthodox candidacy has stirred controversy and shaken the Republican Party at its roots but an increasing number of senior Republicans are becoming resigned to the idea he will be their candidate in November.
Trump is “rewriting the playbook,” said Christie, 53, who until two weeks ago was himself a rival of Trump for the Republican nomination.
Trump, 69, has never held public office and has campaigned as a political outsider. He is riding a wave of voter anger at the slow economic recovery, illegal immigration and what he says is America’s diminishing role in the world.
“The best person to beat Hillary Clinton in November on that stage last night is undoubtedly Donald Trump,” Christie told a news conference on Friday, a day after a Republican candidates’ debate.
A former prosecutor, Christie has been mentioned in Republican circles as a possible future attorney general, but he said he had not been offered a position in any future Trump administration.
The endorsement by the New Jersey governor gives Trump, from neighboring New York, a lift ahead of the March 1 Super Tuesday nominating contests.
Trump, a brash real estate magnate, has won three straight nominating contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, convincing some mainstream Republicans that he may have too much momentum to be stopped, especially if he wins big in the key southern U.S. primaries four days away.
Former Secretary of State Clinton is battling U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the Democratic nomination.
Trump has vowed to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border to halt illegal immigration, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States and promised to take a tough stance on trade against China.
Republican rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz ganged up on Trump at a raucous debate on Thursday in a last-ditch bid to keep the billionaire from winning in states on Super Tuesday that could set him up to clinch the presidential nomination.
Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, went on the attack again on Friday at a rally in Dallas. “Guys, we have a con artist as the front-runner of the Republican Party,” he said.
Attacks on Trump at the Republican debate in Houston only dented his momentum, based on opinion polls, social media comment and online betting markets.
PredictWise, a research project that analyzes opinion polls and betting markets, said Trump would comfortably win among Republicans in all but one of 11 Super Tuesday states that it measured. Cruz, 45, is likely to win in Texas, his home state, PredictWise said.
PredictIt, based out of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, on Friday gave Trump a 73 percent chance of winning the nomination compared with a peak 75 percent chance two days earlier.
Trump, in a post on Twitter, took aim at Rubio, a first-term senator, for his debate performance.
“Lightweight Marco Rubio was working hard last night. The problem is, he is a choker, and once a choker, always a chocker (sic)! Mr. Meltdown.”
Following Christie’s endorsement, the New Jersey governor was top trending on Twitter. There were roughly 17 tweets per second about him, according to social media analytics firm Zoomph.
Republican strategist Doug Heye said Christie may have opened the door for more mainstream Republican endorsements of a man whose chances of winning the White House were seen as nearly non-existent a year ago.
“If you’re the Trump campaign this is obviously very good news and it gives permission for others to endorse. But it also makes it hard (for Trump) to make the outsider argument.
“The best-known governor and the former chairman of the (Republican Governors Association) RGA?” Heye said in reference to Christie. “That’s not an outsider.”
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey in Washington and Melissa Fares in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Howard Goller)
Photo: Donald Trump shakes hands with Chris Christie. REUTERS/Mike Stone