Earlier in the week, Chris Christie unleashed on a reporter who, during a roundtable on drug addiction, asked him about Donald Trump.
"We're sitting here talking about some really important issues of recovery and addiction that are ravaging families across the country," Christie scolded, "and you all, quite frankly, should be ashamed of yourselves. All you do is ask about Donald Trump, every place I go."
It was vintage Christie, the brash New Jersey governor whose reputation for "telling it like it is" -- not coincidentally his campaign slogan -- precedes him wherever he goes.
His frustration over Trump mania -- an affliction that has affected not only roughly 30 percent of registered Republicans but many in the mainstream media -- is understandable. Often it seems like the only time we talk about the Republican field is through the lens of Trump and whatever irrational, offensive thing he's said last.
And despite largely denouncing much of what he says, the other candidates are routinely lumped in with Trump or asked to explain his impolitic rhetoric. Can you blame them for getting annoyed?
But Christie actually owes Trump a big, fat thank you. If there's a silver lining to the inexplicable surge of a Republican candidate who is neither conservative nor anti-establishment, and who seems to have precious little affection for the Constitution or the limitations of executive authority, it's that he's inoculated a number of candidates, including Chris Christie, against their own biggest problems.
In the case of tough-talking Christie, the obligatory line from pundits a year ago was, "Sure, they love him in New Jersey. But he doesn't work in Iowa or New Hampshire," where apparently there's an intolerance for Christie's ilk.
Was that ever true! Over the summer, as NJ.com reported, Christie led the GOP field in Iowa in unfavorability. Fifty-one percent of GOP voters deemed him unfavorable compared to 26 percent favorable. Ouch. It wasn't much better in New Hampshire, where 46 percent rated him unfavorably compared to 38 percent favorable.
Since then, however, he's managed to flip the New Hampshire rating, to 54 percent favorable and 32 percent unfavorable, and bumped up his favorability in Iowa. He also won a crucial endorsement in New Hampshire from the Union Leader.
Christie's explanation? "I think I've just shown up," he told NJ Advance Media.
I think it's more than that. Trump has made Christie-the-bully look polite by comparison.
When Trump appears to mock a journalist's disability, or questions the heroism of POWs, or calls Mexican immigrants rapists, or slams a woman candidate for her looks, or says a protester maybe "should have been roughed up," suddenly Christie's infamous "sit down and shut up" to a heckler seems downright genteel.
Christie can pitch the same straight-talking aversion to political correctness that has endeared Trump to many, but whereas Trump wields his big mouth indiscriminately, Christie's actually disciplined by default. If you like Trump's attitude but can't envision him as commander-in-chief, Christie's a much easier image to conjure.
I'd argue you could make a similar case for the other Republican frontrunner, Ben Carson, whose presence in the race could end up being a significant gift to Sen. Ted Cruz.
Almost from the day he entered the Senate in 2013, Cruz has cultivated a reputation for digging in his heels, slamming other Republican senators for not being conservative enough and televangelizing on the Senatefloor.
But next to Carson, whose dominance among evangelicals has carried him to the top of the polls at times during this campaign, Cruz is starting to look like the more rational pick of the two social conservatives appealing to the religious right.
While Cruz got some laughs and headlines after recently suggesting the GOP isn't against contraception -- "Last I checked, we don't have a rubber shortage in America," he said in Iowa -- this feels palpably substantive compared to Carson's suggestion that Muslim's shouldn't be president, the Egyptian pyramids were ancient granaries and going to prison can make you gay. And Cruz has transplanted Carson in the most recent polls in Iowa, neck-in-neck with Trump.
While some might argue that Christie's been unfairly maligned as a bully and Cruz has been unfairly stereotyped as extreme, it's hard to see how either could effectively correct those perceptions in a primary devoid of Trump and Carson.
In fact, if Christie and Cruz want to maintain their momentum, they should hope and pray that Trump and Carson keep running their mouths.