FORT WORTH, TX (KTVU and AP) - Early voting began in some states Friday as GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump received an ebullient endorsement from his former rival New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a rally in Texas. Christie could prove to be a powerful ally as Trump tries to fend off increasingly aggressive attacks by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz who are vying to become the main challenger to the billionaire businessman.
"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 in Texas. Reporters were visibly stunned when he walked into the room.
"I can guarantee you that the one person that Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage come next September is Donald Trump," said Christie, who dropped his own bid for the presidency February 10th following a disappointing finish in New Hampshire.
Trump on Thursday night faced a barrage of new attacks from rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz during the final debate ahead of next week's Super Tuesday contests, where large numbers of delegates are at stake.
Rubio hit at Trump's business record, history of hiring foreign workers and his vague policy positions during the debate. The broadsides clearly irritated Trump and threatened to provide Rubio with a jolt of new momentum as he seeks to turn the contest into a two-man race.
"Donald probably needs a lifeline after last night. So he called in Chris Christie. I respect that. I have more than my fair share of endorsements," said Rubio Friday.
Rubio's team had unveiled a flood of endorsements in recent days to cast him as the GOP's preferred alternative to Trump, including nods from the governors from Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina.
At a rally Friday, Rubio mocked Trump's tweets and called him a con artist.
"He's not going to be the nominee. The Republican party would be split apart if he became nominee. Because we cannot allow the party of Reagan to be taken over by a con man," Rubio said.
Ted Cruz was in Tennessee also blasting Trump Friday.
"His actions demonstrate that the only thing he's cared about is putting money bank account," Cruz said.
Cruz is banking on a boost next Tuesday and is hoping for a big win in Texas where Governor Greg Abbott cast his early vote Friday for Cruz.
Political analyst Brian Sobel says that would be a critical win if Cruz hopes to overtake Trump and put distance between himself and Rubio.
"If Trump were to run the board on Tuesday night, he's more than halfway home and it's March first," said Sobel, noting that Tuesday's contests will determine nearly half the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination.
Ohio Governor John Kasich said Christie's endorsement of Trump was a surprise, since Kasich had asked for Christie's support. Kasich is staying in the race hoping to win Ohio's primary on March 15th, but even loyal Kasich supporters expressed some doubts Friday at a rally.
"I've been a supporter of yours early in the campaign. What is the pathway to victory?" asked one man in the crowd.
"No one thought I would be here. I'm the last Governor standing," Kasich replied, "I'm going to win Ohio."
A former Christie campaign official said the governor made his decision to endorse Trump on Thursday following a meeting in Manhattan attended by the two men and their wives. Christie was already on a plane heading to Texas as the debate was airing, according to the former official, who was not authorized to speak publically on Christie's behalf and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While Christie's own campaign for president failed to gain traction in a crowded field, he nonetheless remains a well-regarded figure in the GOP, having served as a top surrogate to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and as the former chair of the Republican Governors Association.
"Gov. Christie is an enormously respected Republican governor with great credibility," said GOP consultant Phil Musser. "It's a big signal from a major leader in the Republican party."
And indeed, Christie's endorsement was quickly 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.
Christie, known as one of his party's most effective and vicious attack dogs, embraced the role within minutes of joining Trump. He slammed Rubio - "Desperate people do desperate things," he said and shut down a reporter for asking about a lawsuit leveled against Trump.
Trump appeared to relish the attacks, mentioning repeatedly how Christie had "totally destroyed Marco Rubio the other day."
The back-patting was a departure from some of the pair's more heated rhetoric. Before Christie left the race, he questioned Trump's temperament and experience, saying he wasn't suited for the presidency. And after Trump called for a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S., Christie said, "This is the kind of thing that people say when they have no experience and don't know what they're talking about."
Christie's re-entry into the race also marks the second time that he has slowed Rubio on the rise. During the last GOP debate before the New Hampshire primary, as Rubio appeared to be on the cusp of a breakthrough, Christie set a verbal trap that left Rubio repeating the same practiced line over and over again.
It was the same tactic Rubio used against Trump in Thursday night's debate, as he forced the billionaire to repeat the same talking points to describe a health care plan thin on detail. "I just watched you repeat yourself five times five seconds ago," Rubio said with glee.
Christie said Friday the decision to endorse Trump was an easy one, as the two men have a longstanding personal friendship. "I absolutely appreciate him as a person and as a friend," he said.
And his options were limited. Christie had long been adamant that first-term senators were not qualified to be president, disqualifying Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz from consideration, leaving him to choose from Trump, Gov. Kasich or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. Neither Kasich nor Carson are forecast to be competitive on Super Tuesday.
Christie insisted he and Trump had not discussed potential Cabinet appointments for the former federal prosecutor, who has been floated as a potential vice president, attorney general and secretary of the Homeland Security Department. Instead, he said, he expects to finish out his second term as governor "and then go into private life and make money like Trump."
Political analyst Brian Sobel said he expects more GOP endorsements will begin rolling in after Super Tuesday.
"Endorsements come because people see momentum going in a certain direction and don't want to be left on the train platform. They want to be on the train," Sobel said.