Chris Christie can’t decide how to treat Nikki Haley

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Chris Christie treats Nikki Haley very differently on the debate stage than he does on the campaign trail.

As Haley rises faster in New Hampshire than Christie does, he’s started laying into her on the stump, accusing her of being a flip-flopper on topics such as abortion and support for former President Donald Trump.

But on the debate stage in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, it was Christie who was switching positions: He once again had her back against an onslaught of attacks from businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, as he had in the Republicans’ third showdown in Miami.

“He has insulted Nikki Haley’s basic intelligence. Not her positions, her basic intelligence,” Christie said Wednesday. “If you want to disagree on issues, that’s fine. And Nikki and I disagree on some issues. … What we don’t disagree on is this is a smart, accomplished woman and you should stop insulting her.”

The crowd cheered.

But Christie didn’t exclusively defend Haley. Later on, during a segment about China and Taiwan, Christie jabbed Haley for saying Trump was good on trade.

Christie’s back-and-forth approach to Haley comes as she’s steadily risen in the polls following a series of strong debate performances.

In New Hampshire, where Christie has staked his second White House campaign, it’s Haley who is making the strongest claim as the main contender against former President Donald Trump. She’s surged into second place in polls of likely GOP primary voters. Christie, while also on the rise, trails behind her in third.

Voters across New Hampshire town halls for both candidates have told POLITICO they’re torn between the two former governors. But as Haley picks up steam in the first primary state and in others, like Iowa, where Christie is not competing, and South Carolina, where she holds a home-state advantage, voters in recent weeks have increasingly said that they view Haley as the more viable candidate.

So as the two vie for many of the same voters — more moderate Republicans and independents who can cast ballots in the Granite State’s GOP primary — Christie has retooled his stump speech, which was once focused almost entirely on Trump, to draw contrasts with Haley, too.

At a town hall in Concord, New Hampshire, last week, Christie skewered Haley for saying days earlier at an evangelical gathering in Iowa that she would have signed a six-week abortion ban if it had reached her desk when she was governor of South Carolina.

“You cannot be a truth-teller and say one version of the truth in Iowa when you’re in front of a very conservative group, and then when you’re here in New Hampshire, with a libertarian audience, a ‘live free or die’ audience, you have a different answer that you’ll think they’ll like,” Christie said.