Republican presidential candidates John Kasich (L) and Chris Christie (R) participate in the second US GOP Presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, USA, 16 September 2015. EPA/MAX WHITTAKER / POOL

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seem to be moving in opposite directions where it matters most. Nationally both are in low single-digits just above the cut-off for the top tier debate at the end of the month. That’s where the similarity ends, however.

Kasich started strongly in July, had a good first debate and then began sliding in the polls. Currently at only 6 percent in the latest poll from must-win New Hampshire he has lost half his support in roughly two months even while advertising in the state. Christie, by contrast, has bumped up to 7 percent in New Hampshire, where he is concentrating most of his energies. Even in his home state of Ohio, he is in third, running ten points behind Donald Trump, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.

Moreover, Kasich now spends a good deal of his time either “clarifying” comments about Iran (he wants to police the deal) or the sequester (he’s against it but refuses to say how much more, if any, he would give the defense department). What was a positive message of inclusion and concern for the poor has morphed into holier-than-thou hectoring in which he questions critics’ religiosity.

On Tuesday in defense of his expansion of Medicaid he fumed, “Look at Medicaid expansion! Do you know how many people are yelling at me? I go to events where people yell at me. You know what I tell em? I mean, God bless ’em, I’m telling them a little bit better than this, there’s a book, it’s got a new part and an old part,  they put it together. It’s a remarkable book. If you don’t have one, I’ll buy you one, and it talks about how we treat the poor. Sometimes you just have to lead.” Way to win them over, governor. (The remark was reminiscent of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s accusation that those who did not agree with him on immigration lacked a heart.) It is that brusqueness and dismissive attitude toward critics that’s turned off donors and political allies in the past.

The contrast between the two candidates is stark.

Kasich gets in more words per minute than any candidate. In a stream of consciousness his words pour forth, creating uncertainty as to where the sentences are heading and what his policy point actually is. For all his Ohio accomplishments he has not laid out clear national policies with the exception of the balanced budget gimmick (how one is going to get there is the problem, of course). In an anti-insider year, he’s selling a straight diet of government experience. He failed in his second debate to convey a sense of command and was left out of the rat-tat-tat exchanges among Jeb Bush, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. In sum, he is not wearing well.

Christie, however,  has laid out a robust agenda with specific proposals on entitlement and tax reform, foreign policy (considerably more hawkish than Kasich), regulation and energy. He is relaxed and sharp on policy in news interviews and entertainment settings like his Tonight Show outing. He has had two strong debate performances. While he does not lack for candor the former prosecutor makes his arguments forcefully and focuses on the issue at hand. He previously carried the “bully” tag, but compared to Donald Trump he seems positively tame these days.

It is easy for liberals to paint Kasich as odd man out in the GOP because he talks about the poor and embraces energetic government. Still, that does not explain how Christie (who also expanded Medicaid and is a moderate Northeastern Republican) is getting traction. In fact the explanation boils down to a simple but overlooked truism: Better candidates beat worse candidates. Funny, relaxed contenders usually beat prickly, defensive ones.

This does not mean Christie is going to work his way into the top tier anytime soon. That, if it occurs, will take even stronger debate performances, money, organization and competitors’ self-destruction. He nevertheless seems to be moving in the right direction. In the meantime Kasich appears to be less and less a threat to contenders vying for moderate voters. Things can change quickly in this race to be sure, but for now Christie is by far the more impressive of the two.