“Trump attacks people all the time and it works for him,” Ms. Fiorina said. “I find that sad, because I think character matters, but nevertheless, it works for him but it doesn’t work for others.”
Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump eventually reached a point of highly charged attacks in 2016. The Texas senator said that onstage, there are ways to draw contrasts without “going into the gutter” — though, he added, “it is easy to give in to the mudslinging of the moment.”
“It’s perfectly fine to draw contrast on issues and substance, but don’t be meanspirited about it,” said Mr. Cruz, who said he has advised some of his Democratic Senate colleagues running for president to “have fun and listen to the people,” though declined to name names. “Don’t be personal about it, and focus on the men and women at home.”
In one notable debate moment, Mr. Christie tore into Mr. Rubio before going on to drop out of the race himself, while Mr. Rubio never recovered. The exchange still smarts for some Republicans. Reflecting on it now, Ms. Fiorina said Mr. Christie looked “very small” and “bitter,” to which Mr. Christie shot back, “I’ve forgotten more things about how to conduct myself in political debates than Carly will ever know.”
But Mr. Christie makes no apologies and said Democrats shouldn’t overthink their tone.
“If you’re running for vice president, then run for vice president,” he said. “But the fact is, if you’re on that stage, you’re in it to win. If you think you have a valid contrast point to make against another person on the stage, then make it. It’s not nasty, it doesn’t have to be.”
Backstage is not a safe space
From the moment candidates arrive at the debate venue, they should be on guard for interactions with their opponents — whether that’s backstage or in a bathroom.