February 26, 2016 1:04 pm
Updated: February 26, 2016 7:55 pm

Chris Christie endorses Donald Trump for president

WATCH: Donald Trump lashed out at his rivals after stumbling in the latest Republican debate. And now, he has a new endorsement from an old rival, New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Jackson Proskow reports.

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WASHINGTON – Republican front-runner Donald Trump won the backing Friday of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, himself a former presidential candidate, in a jolt to one of the wildest primary contests in recent memory.

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’m happy to be on the Trump team and look forward to working with him,” Christie said at a Trump news conference in Texas.

WATCH: Chris Christie endorses Donald Trump during rally 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.

It also turns the story away from the series of brutal rhetorical attacks from Trump’s top opponents in the party’s tenth debate Thursday night.

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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.

WATCH: Is Donald Trump unstoppable?

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.

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.

READ MORE: Rubio, allies renew Trump attacks after wild debate

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 because 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.

READ MORE: Donald Trump momentum grows ahead of Super Tuesday

“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 has South Carolina mostly to herself two days 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.

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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