Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has won the endorsement of one of his formal rivals, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who says Trump had the best chance to win the November election.
Christie's announcement Friday made him the first major party figure to endorse the billionaire real estate mogul.
Speaking at a news conference in Texas ahead of a Trump rally Friday, Christie said Trump has the best chance of beating the leading Democratic presidential contender, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in the presidential election.
He said, "There is no one who is better prepared to provide America with the strong leadership that it needs both at home and around the world," than Trump.
The endorsement could give Trump a boost ahead of next week's crucial Super Tuesday nominating contests in which 12 states hold primaries or caucuses.
It comes a day after a Republican debate that turned into a shouting match as the candidates tackled issues such as illegal immigration, U.S. policy in the Middle East and transparency of candidates' tax records.
During the debate, Trump repeated his claim that he would make Mexico pay for the wall he has proposed building on the southern U.S. border to curb illegal immigration, and because of objections from Mexican officials on the issue, Trump said, "The wall just got 10 feet higher."
His closest rivals, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, accused Trump of using illegal immigrant labor in some of his high-profile building projects. Both said Trump was forced to pay a $1 million fine for hiring illegal immigrants.
Both Rubio and Cruz stated their willingness to make public their tax records and criticized Trump for demurring on the issue. Trump said he would publish his tax records — a common practice for U.S. presidential candidates — only after what he called "a routine audit."
The flamboyant Trump, who has never held elective office, has won three straight primary election contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
An online Bloomberg Politics poll released Thursday found the twice-divorced Trump with 37 percent of the vote in seven southern states, home to some of the nation's most conservative voters.
Both Rubio and Cruz have sharpened their attacks on Trump in recent days, with Rubio contending that Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan is empty rhetoric without many specific policy proposals.
Two other candidates, Ohio Governor John Kasich and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, remain in the race and were on the debate stage Thursday. The debate was the first without former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who dropped out after a disappointing fourth place finish last weekend in South Carolina.
Cruz, a conservative agitator in Washington against Republican and Democratic leaders, on Wednesday attacked Rubio and Trump as "Washington dealmakers." He said Rubio had collaborated with Democrats on immigration policy changes that Congress ultimately abandoned, while Trump has made campaign donations to Democrats in past elections and at times supported their policies.
Cruz is looking to win his home state of Texas on Tuesday and do well in other nearby states in the southern part of the country. Surveys, however, show Republicans favoring Trump in those states and pulling close to Cruz in Texas. Rubio also faces a key contest in the southeastern state of Florida, his home state, on March 15, the same day Kasich is on the ballot with the other candidates in Ohio, the Midwestern state he governs.
Trump has predicted he will face off with Clinton to replace President Barack Obama, whose eight-year tenure in the White House ends in January.
Clinton has won two of the three Democratic state contests over her remaining rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. Clinton, the country's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013, is favored in Saturday's primary election in the Atlantic coastal state of South Carolina and the two are battling in 11 states on Tuesday.